One day after the calculated murder and bloody retribution at the Manus detention camp, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison stood in front of news cameras and told a concocted, now completely discredited, story.
“Illegal maritime arrivals” had rioted and broken out of the Manus camp, breaching fences. PNG police and local G4S security guards had simply “responded”. It was a “tragedy”, but they had brought it on themselves.
It was a breathtaking lie that showed how far the government was willing to go to defend its Operation Sovereign Borders.
But before it was even spoken Morrison’s lie had begun to unravel. Thanks to the asylum seekers and the refugee movement, the truth got out—there was no riot on 17 February, no break out. The murder of Reza Barati, the throat slashings, the blindings, the beatings, the gunshots fired at unarmed asylum seekers: these were the unprovoked, horrific consequences of a detention system imposed and funded by Australia.
Its sheer ruthlessness propelled people into action. Thousands joined refugee action group demonstrations; GetUp called vigils that drew 15,000 at less than three days’ notice; the call to boycott Sydney art festival, the Biennale, over its sponsorship by detention contractor Transfield, built strong (and ultimately successful) momentum (see p7) and 500 academics signed and published an open letter calling for the closure of the Manus camp. Homemade placards and banners calling for closing Manus Island and justice for refugees were features of all the March in March demonstrations.
The detention regime unravels
Operation Sovereign Borders is now more hated, more exposed, and more discredited. Abbott and Morrison are under pressure; and the cracks are showing.
Abbott’s visit in late March to salvage the PNG deal only revealed that PNG is not really committed to resettling refugees at all. PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said that PNG would only resettle “some” of those now on Manus Island and that the earliest PNG laws might be changed is May.
Meanwhile, despite all their efforts, including Julie Bishop courting Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler, Hun Sen, the government cannot name another country where refugees could be resettled. As they grapple with what to do with 1300 detainees on Manus and the 1136 on Nauru, the calls to end offshore processing have gotten louder.
The PNG government, backed by Abbott, moved to halt not one, but two inquiries into Manus detention led by Justice David Cannings. But asylum seekers’ testimonies and reports of filthy detention conditions are already public as a result.
Morrison and Abbott are desperately pretending that it is “business as usual” on Manus Island, but they have been unable to bring the local G4S staff or the PNG police back into the detention centre. And political tensions in PNG and on Manus Island over the detention centre and the deal with Australia are growing.
Cracks in Labor
Tragically, there is no pressure on Abbott coming from the Labor Opposition. Despite the horrific events, Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Tanya Plibersek have maintained their support for Manus and offshore processing.
But some cracks are opening up. Labor Senator Sue Lines declared Scott Morrison had “blood on his hands”, and spoke at a very successful public meeting in Canberra of Labor members and refugee supporters on breaking the bipartisan support for deterrence and detention policies. Now, NSW Labor’s right-wing faction leader, Sam Dastyari, has also broken ranks with Labor’s leadership. While he stopped short of calling for the end of offshore processing, he declared his discomfort with Labor’s refugee policies; and stated that what happened on Manus was “murder”.
Dastyari’s call for an open debate on Labor’s migration policies is something the movement can take advantage of.
An issue of class
There are two other important opportunities—openings inside the unions and the Labor Party.
The manufactured boats crisis creates the idea that refugees and migrants are a threat to society and encourages the notion they are responsible for social problems like unemployment and rundown social services. Abbott and Morrison deliberately talk about a war on boat people; Abbott even said letting the boats in would be “to the tremendous disadvantage to our country”.
Accepting anti-refugee ideas is poison for Australian workers. It diverts attention from those who are really responsible for cuts to jobs, services and conditions. And it undermines anti-racist working class solidarity exactly when we need to fight job cuts, and the attacks on Medicare and welfare benefits.
Trade unions organise more than 1.8 million workers. They are key for the refugee campaign because they provide the most effective way to reach mass numbers of working class people to counter the government’s anti-refugee offensive.
The ACTU, and many of their affiliated unions, already have very good pro-refugee policy. Those policies have to be turned into active involvement in the campaign. Building up trade union links with groups like Unions 4 Refugees is also about building towards the possibility of workers exercising their industrial muscle to defend refugee rights.
Organising union contingents at demonstrations, refugee speakers for union meetings, leafleting workplaces and encouraging the formation of workplace groups can be a part of building up to this.
Trade unions also provide a way to pressure the Labor Party from below. The bulk of the unions are affiliated to the ALP and unions control 50 per cent of the vote at Labor conferences, although in practice the 50 per cent is often split between left and right factions.
Labor members are significantly to the left of their leaders on refugees. Encouraging them to organise, inside and outside the party, will increase the pressure on Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek. Moreover, it encourages those who still have illusions that Labor can be a force for social change to get active and speak out against their own leaders.
Open the borders, close the camps
The refugee campaign needs to keep up the pressure. The rallies and vigils in response to the Manus horror brought thousands of people onto the streets to reject xenophobic policies. Protests can also boost the confidence of those behind the razor wire. Many Manus asylum seekers wrote moving tributes to the refugee supporters who had turned out for the vigils and demonstrations, thanking them for their support
The confidence from acting together can now boost the pro-refugee argument and spread the campaign even further.
A month after Reza Barati’s death, a group of Christians occupied Scott Morrison’s office to pray for asylum seekers—five were arrested.
A solid turnout for the Palm Sunday refugee demonstrations can ensure we keep up the momentum.
Despite years of bipartisan support for anti-refugee policies, a solid 30 per cent of people oppose mandatory detention. Our task is to build on that to create a mass movement that can make refugee bashing a political liability.
Rallies and demonstrations have been the most effective at bringing the widest numbers of people into activity. They are, however, not an end in themselves. They are most useful because they help build the grassroots networks and groups we need in every workplace, school, suburb, community and university campus committed to dismantling deterrence policies.
Small groups armed with facts and determination built the movement against the Vietnam War into a real social force. Scores of pro-refugee groups worked to white-ant former Prime Minister John Howard’s anti-refugee hysteria, and were the reason why, by 2006, playing the refugee card no longer worked for the Coalition. That kind of movement can win again against Abbott.
By Amy Thomas