As boatloads of asylum seekers began to arrive in Australian waters in 1999, John Howard cranked up the repression and the anti-refugee rhetoric. Tragically, but perhaps predictably given their history, between 1996 and 2006, the Parliamentary Labor Party supported every move by the Liberal Party to toughen the laws against asylum seekers.
Labor’s support gave legitimacy to the anti-refugee racism that it would not otherwise have had. Most importantly large sections of the working class that traditionally looked to Labor were left at Howard’s mercy. There was a very real danger that racism would sink even deeper roots into Australian society.
It was not until 2006, when the Howard government moved to extend the Pacific Solution and impose off-shore processing on all asylum seekers, that Labor found the parliamentary gumption to stand up to Howard.
Behind this shift, and the shift that was to come in Labor’s actual refugee policy, was an open revolt by rank and file Labor members and unions affiliated with Labor, who were appalled by the Labor leader’s craven attitude.
In 2001, when Labor supported Howard stopping the MV Tampa landing in Australia, thousands of people attended rallies called by refugee campaign groups. Within a few days, hundreds of Labor Party members had torn up their party cards in disgust.
The rallies also heralded the formation of Labor For Refugees (L4R), just a few months later, in December 2001.
Unions and Labor
Refugee Action Collectives had been formed in all the capital cities in 1999-2000. From the beginning, socialists within them had recognised both the power of the unions and the political importance of the working class to building a successful campaign.
All the RAC groups adopted a positive attitude to rank and file Labor members, and the unions. At the first national day of action for refugees in 2000, every rally had a prominent union speaker, including CFMEU NSW state secretary Andrew Ferguson in Sydney and Sharan Burrow in Melbourne.
Even before the formation of L4R, some union leaders including to their credit, the right wing secretaries of NSW Labor Council Michael Costa and later John Robertson, recognised the significance of countering the poison that Howard was spreading.
The unions also have a particular influence within Labor, maintaining 50 per cent of Labor’s national conference. More importantly they have a much more direct connection with the political workers that look to Labor (and whom Howard was trying to influence.) If the parliamentary Labor leaders were ever going to be shifted, having unions with pro-refugee policies would be a huge advantage.
Driving a wedge between the Labor leaders and disgusted Labor members and supporters was the beginning of shifting Labor policy over refugees.
The RAC groups made sure that there were Labor and union speakers at our pickets and rallies. We held forums targeted at Labor and the unions that pulled together union officials and Labor politicians that were willing to be on pro-refugee platforms. We leafleted union events, with fact sheets linking the fight for union and refugee rights, such as “Why the Refugees are a Union Issue”.
In the year following the formation of L4R, every state Labor conference had carried its policy platform. In NSW when then federal leader Kim Beazley spoke at the state Labor Conference, L4R members held their banner in protest on the stage.
Branches carried resolutions, L4R contingents marched in the rallies, union contingents with union flags showed both Labor leaders and Howard that anti-racist workers were supporting refugees.
In 2002, L4R put its pro-refugee charter to the national Labor conference. It is worth noting that the three Labor Left shadow ministers who voted with the right wing against it were Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin and Martin Ferguson.
While we lost that battle, the campaign was winning the war. The protests inside and outside the detention centres, the leaflets, the pickets and rallies were shifting public opinion. Even before Howard lost in 2007, there were changes in detention policies.
Although it did not go as far as refugee groups would have liked, and we still need to campaign, in the run up to the 2007 election Labor adopted a more pro-refugee policy.
Tragically Labor in government is now driving the racism of the Northern Territory Intervention. As they did with refugees, unions have been in the forefront of defending Aboriginal rights. The lessons of the refugee campaign can stand us in good stead as we build a new campaign to fight this new wave of racism.
By Ian Rintoul