The decision by Labor’s National Conference on Saturday not to ban turning back asylum seeker boats has shocked, outraged and upset many members and supporters. And so it should. It puts Labor on the same moral dung heap as the Liberals.
However we need to see this vote not as some shocking break with the past but as its logical outcome.
It was Paul Keating, together with left-wing Minister Gerry Hand, who introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers. A year later they made indefinite detention possible.
It was Kim Beazley in 2001 who stood four square with Howard on turning the Tampa back. (Rather than neutralising the issue Labor’s support boosted Howard and he won the election in a canter. And of course Rudd won in 2007 promising to be much less harsh on refugees, including ending the Howard Pacific Solution.)
Julia Gillard re-instated the ‘Pacific Solution’ (ie. re-opened Manus and Nauru) and developed the regional solution. It was the second Rudd administration which ruled that no asylum-seeker arriving by boat would be resettled in Australia. Now, as part of the ongoing stampede to the right, a future Labor government will support turning back asylum seeker boats.
All of these actions opened the door for the Liberals to preach and implement a more inhumane response and shift the debate to the right. Labor politicians, despite opposition from members and a sizeable section of Labor voters, then followed the Liberals down the path they had set for both parties, instead of leading opposition to scapegoating and demonisation.
There will not only be turn-backs under a Shorten Government. The concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru will continue.
Labor heavyweights offered some concessions to win support for turning back desperate people fleeing persecution, war, rape, death, imprisonment or torture. They will, by 2025, increased the refugee intake to 27,500 from its current 13500 under the Abbott government. First, why can’t this be done immediately? I’ll tell you why. Because Shorten et all have no intention of implementing it. If you think that in ten years they will increase the intake to that figure I have a bridge in Sydney to sell you.
Second, there are upwards of 50 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in the world. The figure Labor is talking about, 27500, is a drop in the ocean.
Third, under Labor, the figure for refugee places was 20,000, before Abbott cut it. So what Shorten is proposing is to increase that 2010 figure by 7500 over the 15 years from then. Hardly magnanimous.
The strategy the Labor leadership is adopting here with supposed ‘sweeteners’ like increasing the refugee intake is putting lipstick on a pig, or as one friend put it, polishing a turd.
In the 1970s and 1980s two thousand Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived by boat. The other about 98000 arrived at Mascot Airport. We sent Immigration officials to transit countries to quickly process them and bring them to Australia. We could of course do the same again.
Those asylum seekers currently in refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia for example will continue to languish there. Estimates are that on average it will take over 100 years for an asylum claim to be heard, processed and accepted and for the refugee to find a home in a country that recognises the Refugee convention.
Turn-backs do not save lives. They merely outsource the possibility of death to other countries. Quick but thorough Australian processing in transit countries, as well as being cheaper than the billions wasted on border forces and offshore and onshore concentration camps, would save all the lives at risk at sea.
If Labor (and their twins in the Liberal Party) were really concerned about the lives of asylum seekers, you’d think they’d be enquiring about what has happened to those turned back, or those rotting in camps in Malaysia or Indonesia, or even what is happening to the kids locked up indefinitely in our camps on Manus Island and Nauru for no crime whatsoever. But politicians aren’t asking about their welfare. Instead Labor and the Liberals have united to pass legislation to jail doctors and nurses who report on the real situation on Manus and Nauru, including reporting on the abuse of children.
But not to worry. Labor has promised to spend more on addressing mental health problems in Australia’s offshore concentration camps. That might seem generous to someone who is easily fooled. However give that the detention centres are the cause of the mental health problems, closing them down would solve the problem.
So what are Labor Party members and supporters who feel betrayed by the Conference decision to do? The first is to continue the fight against whichever government of whatever colour implements cruel anti-refugee policies. Join us in the various refugee action committees and collectives around Australia to continue to build the struggle for a humane and caring policy. Your focus should not be the ALP but creating a mass movement outside the Labor Party that can force change on what I regard as the moribund Party leadership.
Second, some will be tempted to resign from the Party. I suggest a ceremonial burning of hundreds of your membership cards in Melbourne and Sydney, for example, perhaps next weekend. However I don’t want to see that as the end of your political engagement. I hope it is the beginning of a new period of political engagement, free of the dead hand of Labor bureaucrats, timeservers and hacks.
Some will, I am guessing, be tempted to join the Greens or vote for them first, and then vote for Labor ahead of the Liberals. But all that means is when (or now, more likely, if) Labor forms government they will continue policies that increase inequality, that keep the lid on unions and wages, (the major cause, according to the IMF of rising inequality, that see the gender pay gap widen, that keep kids locked up indefinitely on Manus and Nauru, that cut funding over time to public hospitals, public schools and public transport.
For those who stay in the ALP, or who shift actively or passively to the Greens, can I suggest that instead of imagining you can change the world through being part of a party of reform (whether that party of reform be Labor or the Greens), that the reality is that Labor and the Greens are parties of the capitalist status quo. Their aim is to manage capitalism and from this fundamental objective flows their sell-outs, capitulations, backsliding and treachery. Couple that with the ongoing crisis of capitalist profitability in the developed world and managing capitalism means in essence dismantling the welfare state, attacking public goods like hospitals, schools and transport, and duchessing or even further restricting unions and wages.
There are groups on the revolutionary left that offer a different perspective to even the most left-wing of Greens and Labor politicians. If such left wing Labor people exist in any Australian Parliament today is a moot point. There are no Jeremy Corbyns in Labor’s parliamentary ranks.
The reformist project is dead. It has died on the shoals of falling profit rates. The role of Labor in power is to bury it while (sometimes) singing its praises.
I am not saying that you must join us. I want to work with all those good activists who are or were in or near or supportive of the Labor Party and who are now reviewing their membership or support.
Let’s work together in fighting for a better Australia here and now and in doing that learn the lessons flowing from this latest Labor leadership betrayal, not as a one off but as a consistent pattern.
I am a member of Solidarity, one of those small revolutionary socialist groups. At least check us out here. And here is the link to our Facebook page.
Come along to our Keep left Conference in Sydney on the weekend of Saturday 22 August and Sunday 23 August. Details are here.
For those of you interested in exploring the more sustained arguments about the changing nature of the ALP (in my view from a capitalist workers’party to a CAPITALIST workers’party on the way to becoming a capitalist party,) can I suggest you have a read of my academic article about that, viewed through the prism of the Resource Super Profits Tax/Minerals Resource Rent Tax disaster? This is the link to the article on the University of Wollongong website. Passant, J. (2014). The minerals resource rent tax: the Australian Labor Party and the continuity of change. Accounting Research Journal, 27 (1), 19-36. Once in there you can hit the download button on the middle left for access to the article.