Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threatening to devour me, opens wide.
(John Milton, Paradise Lost)
Labor is often depicted as following in the footsteps of the Right’s persecution of asylum seekers. For much of the past two decades this has been largely true. Howard drove refugee-bashing to unprecedented depths. Abbott introduced new levels of hysteria. Hanson of course predated them both, and set the tone for their policies, before being overtaken. Dutton is a monster and has introduced a naked brutality to the asylum regime that left his most sadistic predecessor, Scott Morrison, in its wake. Labor, the narrative goes, has slunk along behind them all the way. But more often than is acknowledged Labor hasn’t followed with a sigh, but has led with a shovel.
The current moment is one such example. In the wake of the federal election, reports poured out of Manus Island that scores of refugees were attempting suicide. A Tamil family from the small Queensland town of Biloela was ordered to be deported back to Sri Lanka. The Liberals declared that they would be repealing last year’s Medevac legislation to prevent refugees from receiving care in Australia. At the same time, the United States declared that it would reject three hundred refugees who had been slated to relocate there from Manus Island and Nauru.
Yet Labor – led by new Deputy Senate Leader Kristina Keneally – has outflanked them all. Keneally used to be sympathetic to the cause of refugees, writing in 2015 that she felt mildly queasy about the party’s support of boat turnbacks. With Albanese’s ascension, however, she has been the beneficiary of a new party post: Shadow Home Affairs portfolio, or Peter Dutton-in waiting. For the past month, she has been on a campaign to out-Dutton Dutton, attacking him in a series of tweets for letting a ‘surge’ of asylum seekers into the country, and coining the term ‘airplane people’ – a ‘serious problem’ which Keneally asserts is a consequence of Dutton having ‘lost control of our borders’.
This would be the same Peter Dutton who calls refugees paedophiles and put riot squads in charge of policing detention centres. Notably, the only ally whom Keneally’s claimed in her crusade is another Liberal, Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs Jason Woods, known for his extreme anti-African rhetoric and for claiming that gangs are flying here on humanitarian planes.
Yet this ‘bloodsport’ (as the ABC calls it) is not a gruesome novelty. Nor is the last decade of bipartisan cruelty a mere consequence of Labor spinelessness, as it’s often characterised. Labor’s willingness to vilify and abuse migrants and refugees is not just a historical fact, but a congenital disease of the party. It is discernible not only in the birthmark of White Australia, but in the malaise of the social democratic project globally, and its entrapment in late, brutal capitalism.
In early, 2015 the first Syriza government was elected in Greece. Syriza was a new, ostensibly radical political force propelled into office on a groundswell of hope without parallels in twenty-first-century Europe. Elected to put an end to crushing austerity and the rise of the far-right, Syriza was quick to dash those hopes. It continued to enforce austerity, tear-gassed impoverished protesting pensioners, and has been virtually deserted by its union base. The party also interned over seventy thousand asylum-seekers in heavily policed camps, with single toilets shared among seventy people and babies sleeping in tents during sub-zero winters.
The Greek experience is an important counter to the narrative that a tidal wave of xenophobia is sweeping the globe as a consequence of working-class disgruntlement. The Greek working class was at by far its angriest from 2011-15, the period of Syriza’s rise. Strikes rocked the country, several riots blew up, and the established social democratic party PASOK – which had governed for almost all of the preceding thirty years – was abandoned in disgust. There is no comparable example in a modern western country where an outraged proletariat has been so desirous of change. Its political manifestation was a party that stood for egalitarianism, and against racism. It was an example which was looked to with hope especially across Southern Europe, where the economic crisis was deepest, and where a new Left was emerging.
The fall from hope to despair is rarely so precipitous, but it is the arc of social democracy. In Australia, we have not had a Greek tragedy but the political landscape has been left barren by the slow-burn of Labor betrayal. In their book Labor’s Conflict, Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn write that Labor’s embrace of nationalism and xenophobia is inescapable for the party. This does not come from needing to cater to a bigoted working-class constituency, but emerges from the core of Labor’s being: a party whose modus operandi is to bind workers’ hopes and aspirations to the operations of capital. In the best of times, this means fomenting a strong identification with the state as the vehicle of cross-class prosperity. In the worst, it means scapegoating foreign workers for the crimes of domestic bosses.
In many ways, this is the political story of the past several decades. Austere social democratic governments across Europe – from Spain to France to Britain – have demobilised workers and recentered politics around nationalist aims, causing deep scars in public consciousness in the process. The exceptions that are argued for are dubious. Jacinda Ardern has just sunk $25 million into turning back refugee boats, along with beefing up the Defence budget by $5 billion, and the much-vaunted New Zealand deal has always included provisions that the Australian Navy would stop refugee boats from landing in the smaller country. Jeremy Corbyn’s history as an anti-racist activist deserves recognition, but as Labour leader he has endorsed stricter immigration controls and beefing up border security spending, and has frequently attacked the Tories for their laxity on migration. And this is to say nothing of someone like Hilary Clinton, who last year toured Europe arguing that the continent’s leaders ‘must send a very clear message – “we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’”, before concluding: ‘I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.’
Crossing our fingers or hoping for more humane parliamentarians won’t pull Australia, or much of the rest of the world, out of this malaise. The militarisation of Western borders, and the apparatus of refugee deterrence and demonisation, are now facts on the ground whose political utility in an age of economic stagnation and profound cynicism is not going to diminish. For any movement for migrant or refugee justice to have a chance, it must not founder on the reef of parliamentary compromise.
Image: A refugee rights protest outside the NSW ALP conference in Sydney in 2013.