As Solidarity goes to press, the High Court has announced it will hand down a decision on the challenge to the Malaysia refugee deal on Wednesday August 31. Whether or not the 335 asylum seekers (42 of them unaccompanied minors) on Christmas Island are actually sent to Malaysia depends on the outcome of that case. But, regardless of the decision, the Gillard government remains determined to get around any legal obstacles to slam the door on asylum seekers.
It now has a plan B—an agreement with Papua New Guinea to re-open the detention centre on Manus Island—the malaria-ridden twin to Nauru under the Howard government’s Pacific Solution.
The Labor government’s hypocrisy is astonishing. In November 2008, it boasted, “Labor committed to abolishing the Pacific Solution and this was one the first things the Rudd Labor Government did on taking office… Neither humane nor fair, the Pacific Solution was also ineffective and wasteful.” Now Immigration Minister Chris Bowen boasts about opening the Pacific Solution mark 2.0.
It has been a bad few weeks for Gillard and Bowen, with mounting criticism of off-shore processing and mandatory detention. Immigration Department Secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, used a Senates Estimates hearing to pose questions about government policy: “How should we manage the issue of asylum? What is the balance between our international obligations to protect refugees and our need for strong border controls? Is immigration detention a deterrent?”
Metcalfe made his name as an enforcer of John Howard’s ruthless anti-refugee policies from the days of the Tampa, totally committed to the idea that detention is a deterrent.
That he is airing such “concerns” is an indication of cracks even among those who brutally police the detention regime.
Meanwhile, Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton, speaking in front of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, said, “The AMA believes that the system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is inherently harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees.”
Another blow against mandatory detention came from the publication of A New Approach, Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Signed by more than 30 prominent business and union leaders, it proposes phasing out mandatory detention within two years and significantly increasing Australia’s intake of refugees over five years.
Endorsees include business representatives Heather Ridout and Janet Holmes á Court, ACTU secretary Ged Kearney, former Liberal leader John Hewson, scientist Sir Gustav Nossal and novelist Thomas Keneally.
And opposition is growing inside the Labor Party. Victorian Labor Left MP Anna Burke has publicly opposed both the Malaysia agreement and re-opening Manus Island. Burke said Manus Island was, “a return to the Howard government’s so-called Pacific Solution policy”—exactly. Now the Labor Left convenors must take a stand.
The Eltham Labor Party Branch (in Labor Left Minister Jenny Macklin’s electorate) carried a resolution opposing the Malaysia agreement and became the 79th Victorian ALP branch to affiliate to Labor for Refugees.
The Australian Education Union and the National Tertiary Education Union have carried resolutions against the Malaysia Agreement and written to Gillard.
Public opinion shifting
But perhaps the most encouraging news was an Age/Nielsen poll reporting that 53 per cent of people favoureassessing asylum claims in Australia. Only 28 per cent said people arriving by boat should be sent to another country to be processed.
The poll puts the lie to the idea that politicians, both Labor and Liberal, are simply following anti-refugee attitudes in the community. That argument was always an excuse for their own lack of principles. Now it is even clearer that the refugee bashing is driven from the top down.
The poll shows that even against the weight of leaders of both political parties and most of the media, grassroots campaigning can make a difference.
On mandatory detention there is still a way to go, with only 32 per cent supporting asylum seekers living in the community while their claims are processed.
To end mandatory detention and off-shore processing, we need to keep shifting public opinion and mobilise it into a force that Gillard cannot ignore.
Rallies are planned in October around the anniversary of the sinking of the SIEV X and in December at Labor’s national conference. The NSW Refugee Action Coalition has initiated a campaign to reinvigorate connections between the refugee movement and the labour movement.
See www.refugeeaction.org.au for model motions you can move at your union meeting.