Shamefully but not surprisingly, on 17 June, a motion proposing that parliamentary Labor oppose the offshore processing of asylum seekers lost “on the voices”.

The motion that the party “shall no longer support the transfer of asylum seekers by Australia to Manus Island or Nauru and shall call for the detention centres in those places to be closed down forthwith”, was moved by Melissa Parke and Anna Burke.

An alternative motion, moved by Shadow Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles and seconded by Labor right Senator Sam Dastyari, calling on the Abbott government to strive to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all persons at the Manus Island detention centre and that “all asylum seekers should be afforded safe, dignified and humane conditions while awaiting refugee status determinations”, was then carried on the voices.

Considering the murder of Reza Barati, the absolute cruelty of Manus and Nauru and the brutal bashing of protesting asylum seekers on Christmas Island, the call for Tony Abbott “to strive” to ensure the well-being of asylum seekers on Manus Island is nothing less than pathetic.

Having re-introduced offshore processing when it was in office, the Labor leadership has been absolutely craven in the face of Abbott and Morrison’s Operation Sovereign Borders. The Shadow Immigration Minister used his May speech at the National Press Club to insist that Labor would stick with offshore processing. At the same time, Marles farcically declared that modern Labor was driven by the values of “compassion, fairness and generosity”.

Only a week before the vote, Labor leader Bill Shorten very publicly proclaimed that Labor would remain committed to offshore processing.

But the truth is the Labor leadership is under pressure. That a vote against offshore processing was even considered so early in Labor’s time in opposition is an indication of the discontent among Labor’s own membership and of the growing community and institutional opposition.

There are now at least seven federal Labor MPs and a number of state Labor politicians who have openly opposed offshore processing. Those numbers can only grow.

When Labor was in opposition last time, it took eight years for Labor to shift towards a humanitarian refugee policy and ten years for the Parliamentary Labor Party to vote against any aspect of John Howard’s anti-refugee policies.

In the run up to the caucus vote a petition, coordinated through Darwin’s refugee advocacy group, DASSAN, with over 4000 signatures calling for Labor to oppose offshore processing was presented and/or emailed to Labor MPs and Senators.

The Victorian Labor conference in May voted unanimously against offshore processing. A similar resolution will be put to the NSW state conference in July.

A meeting of the NSW Young Labor Left controversially resolved that the group would “collectively and openly” withdraw its support from the campaigns of any Labor parliamentary candidate that does not publicly declare their opposition to the mandatory detention and offshore processing of asylum seekers.

The increasingly active support for Unions for Refugees is particularly encouraging.

The obvious cracks in Labor’s ranks, so early, are promising.

That doesn’t mean that closing Manus Island and Nauru is dependent on changing Labor’s policies or that changing Labor’s policies can be or should be the focus of the refugee movement.

The Labor leadership will have to be dragged behind a vibrant refugee campaign that directly confronts Abbott and Morrison and shifts public opinion.

Nor do we have to wait for Labor; substantial change was won from the Howard government despite the Labor leadership in the early 2000s. But breaking the bi-partisan support for offshore processing has to be one political goal of the refugee movement. This means building a campaign oriented to winning Labor’s base in the unions and the working class to fight Labor’s policy, as part and parcel of the campaign to beat Abbott and Morrison.

By Ian Rintoul

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