HOW THE refugee movement relates to members of the Labor Party is again assuming strategic importance for the campaign. The question will become even more crucial in the lead up to the ALP National Conference in early December.
It is undisputed that the Gillard government is particularly nasty on the question of asylum seekers. Since the defeat of John Howard in November 2007, there has been far more continuity than change in relation to mandatory detention, offshore processing and the exaggerated rhetoric around “people smuggling”.
Labor’s few positive changes—the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), the ending of the Pacific Solution, and the elimination of the 45-day rule (which restricted work rights for asylum seekers who arrived by plane)—were all implemented in the first year of the Rudd government.
These reforms had been a central feature of the platform of Labor for Refugees (L4R), which had built up tremendous support inside the ALP and the unions under Howard. By the 2004 ALP National Conference, when Mark Latham was Opposition Leader, L4R had the support of the entire Left faction (with the notorious exceptions of Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin and Martin Ferguson) as well as significant sections of the rightwing unions. L4R motions calling for community processing and ending TPVs were passed at every state ALP Conference.
The issue of how to relate to Labor and L4R was a serious question for the movement at the time. Members of the Democratic Socialist Party (now Socialist Alliance) opposed RAC constructively engaging with Labor. They went so far as to form a rival Free the Refugees campaign group, although it was wound up a couple of years later.
At that time, Socialist Alternative members gave verbal support to those of us from the International Socialist Organisation (now Solidarity) who argued that engaging and encouraging Labor for Refugees was a strategic priority for the movement. Now however, Socialist Alternative has positioned itself as the anti-Labor group, treating Labor as a monolith, and showing little concern for what is happening inside it.
But in 2011, L4R is reviving. Its convenors are more prepared than ever to publicly oppose the federal Labor government’s policies. They have been active at state conferences and issued a scathing media release criticising the Malaysia Solution. In Victoria, at last count, 79 local ALP branches had signed up to L4R. In NSW L4R has endorsed three RAC-initiated motions for distribution to NSW branches and are heading to Canberra to lobby MPs in early September.
Building the campaign
In Melbourne’s Refugee Action Collective, where Socialist Alternative members could have put forward campaign initiatives, there are no plans for a major rally or anything else to deepen and extend the movement between now and the end of the year. The one thing that is being promoted is the idea of travelling to Sydney for the rally at the Labor National Conference.
The combined efforts of the grassroots campaign spearheaded by the RAC groups (and L4R inside the party) is having an effect, with federal ALP MP Anna Burke speaking out about the Malaysia Solution, along with 14 WA state MPs.
A strategic task of the refugee campaign must be to break the bi-partisan agreement between Labor and Liberal leaderships. By working with unions and L4R to deepen the opposition inside the Labor Party, the movement can more effectively expose Gillard and Bowen’s disgraceful refugee-bashing. Opposition to the Labor leadership from inside the labour movement can only encourage the majority of organised workers to break from Gillard and support the refugee campaign.
There is a real debate inside the party about whether Labor has to accept anti-refugee policies as the only way to win elections and a real tension between Labor policy and the Labor leadership.
The far left can’t simply engage in pious grandstanding about Labor’s sellouts. If we simply denounce Labor without making an effort to work alongside those who want to challenge them, then the audience inside the party, and those outside who look to Labor, will not take us seriously. Such an approach risks cutting the movement off from the very organised workers that are essential to it.
The protest outside the ALP national conference is not just another protest or another opportunity to shout at Gillard. The campaign needs to make a special effort to ensure the protest involves the maximum number of Labor members, supporters and unionists.
This will require building the rally with unions and L4R to make sure that Labor’s leaders know there is a movement with roots in the labour movement determined to fight for the humanitarian policy they have turned their back on.