The Rudd government is involved in a disgraceful bidding war with the Liberals about which party is toughest on refugees.
As Christmas Island detention fills up, Rudd has been spooked by the small increase in asylum boat arrivals, and stung by Opposition criticism that his refugee policies have failed.
Desperate to prove his border protection credentials and to show that, just like John Howard, he could stop asylum boats, in mid October Rudd saw his “Tampa moment” and called the Indonesian president to ask the Indonesian navy to intercept 250 Tamil asylum seekers on their way to Australia (see page 7).
Rudd’s stance has only encouraged the Liberals to return to the fear-mongering and refugee bashing of the Howard years. Philip Ruddock even emerged from his Parliamentary mausoleum to peddle fictional warnings of 10,000 asylum seekers ready to swamp Australia. By constantly stressing he wants to stop the boats, not welcome refugees, Rudd has given ground to the Liberals.
Tragically, Labor’s policy has the same rotten foundations as the Liberals’—mandatory detention, border protection and offshore processing.
Labor claims its policy is “tough but humane”. They may have re-introduced permanent refugee visas and closed Nauru, but that means little when they’re now directing every effort to ensure asylum seekers never get to Australia’s borders.
They say that women and children are no longer held in detention. But that’s not law and only true if you ignore Christmas Island. The 90-day target for refugee processing doesn’t apply there either.
Overwhelmingly, people who claim asylum in Australian travel by plane. At any given time there are around 50,000 tourist visa over-stayers. Why the hysteria about refugee boats? Around 1700 asylum seekers have arrived this year—fewer than the 5500 that arrived in 2001, or the 3000 in 2002.
Firstly, Rudd is primarily concerned with electoral politics. To seek electoral advantage, the Labor leaders are more than willing to drop principles (and Labor policy) in favour of populism. On issues like gay marriage, the NT Intervention or refugees, it is easier to pander to the prejudices of media commentators and the Howard battlers than to challenge them.
This is the history of Labor on refugees. It introduced mandatory detention in the early 1990s. Then in Opposition, it supported almost every piece of anti-refugee legislation the Howard government introduced. It was only the grassroots fight by the refugee movement that forced changes in Labor policy before the last election.
With no lead from Labor, it is not surprising that opinion polls show greater numbers now agree with being tough on refugees.
Secondly, like the fears of the “yellow peril” from the north, the roots of the immigration hysteria lie deep in the history of Australia as a white settler-state, an outpost of imperialism in Asia.
This is the real basis for governments to be tough—the ones “who will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come.” Welcoming asylum seekers challenges the ideological underpinnings of Australian nationalism.
This time, however, there is encouraging opposition to the xenophobia from the labour movement. Paul Howes, national secretary of the AWU, called for Rudd to take a lead on refugees. The ACTU published a statement in The Australian criticising Rudd’s Indonesian solution.
ACTU president, Sharan Burrow, has called for the asylum seekers be processed in Australia. “Bring the people here, let’s process them, give them safe homes if they’re genuine refugees.”
Labor for Refugees has also called on the Government to bring the Sri Lankans to Australia.
As each day goes by, Rudd is squandering political capital and handing an advantage to the Liberals.
Many Labor supporters are angered and bewildered by Rudd’s sharp move to the right. But Rudd believes that in the end, refugee supporters (or opponents of the NT Intervention) will not mean lost votes—a first preference to the Greens generally gives Labor a second preference.
Some in the refugee campaign think the way forward is to develop policy that will stop the boats, as if the boats are the problem. We can fight for better policy and stop Australia warehousing asylum seekers in Indonesia. Asylum seekers in Indonesia should be processed under Australian conditions, Australian law and guaranteed resettlement in Australia.
But a humane refugee policy must mean Australia’s borders are open to refugees.
We got rid of Howard in 2007, but Rudd is reviving Howard’s ghost. The fight for a truly humane policy will finally be won, in the same way that the refugee movement won against John Howard—with solidarity with refugees, fact sheets, meetings, protests, demonstrations, and matching Rudd argument for argument.