In the 2013 federal election campaign, both major political parties jockeyed to show who was better placed to inflict harm on persecuted people seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. How has it come to this, and what can be done?
Australia has a long tradition of treating asylum seekers badly. Barry Jones has recently reminded us that in 1938, Australian government policy held that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were “queue jumpers” assisted by immoral people smugglers. Australia participated in the Evian Conference held in France in 1938 to discuss a rise in Jewish asylum seekers fleeing Hitler. At that conference, representative Thomas White stated: “It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration”. The Australian government agreed to accept a small number of Jewish refugees at that conference.
1938 was also the year that my grandparents fled Poland, leaving behind many family members; brothers and sisters, parents, uncles and aunts all subsequently murdered by the Nazis. My grandparents did not discuss these events with me. I learnt of what happened when my grandfather gave me a video tape shortly before he died. He had been interviewed by a stranger with a camera to document what had happened, and watching that interview changed my life. It was 20 years ago. I have not been able to bring myself to watch it since, though one day when my daughters are old enough I will do so.
In 2006, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd wrote eloquently in The Monthly:
Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst.
That is why the government’s proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches. We should never forget that the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust, when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of Germany and the other occupied countries of Europe who sought asylum during the 1930s.
These values did not endure. The ALP was unable to resist the political pressure applied by the opposition and its echo, much of the Murdoch press. Each new boat arrival was met with howls of derision, racist dog whistling and hysterical talk back radio. In 2012, detention centres in Nauru and Manus island were re-opened; not long after the Rudd government then announced the PNG solution – the latest in a long line of policies by which Australia, one of the wealthiest multicultural countries in the world, outsources asylum seekers to an impoverished Pacific neighbour. The announcement encouraged the conservative opposition to further extremes, and Operation Sovereign Borders was born.
So the question for progressives is: what is to be done?
Former US Labour Secretary Robert Reich urges the need for progressives to “connect the dots, to see how one frustrating or outrageous thing is connected to all the other frustrating and outrageous things” in order to understand the big picture.
It is critical that we understand that the political strategy deployed so successfully in 2001 has continued to this day. It has become the conservatives’ default tactic. Just as it did with asylum-seekers, the Liberal party has skilfully and relentlessly inculcated a sense of crisis and emergency where none exists.
The language of crisis, catastrophe, emergency, debacle and disaster has been theatrically and effectively deployed. Expert opinion, peer reviewed research and rationality are casualties of this era. Painstaking, peer reviewed scientific research undertaken over decades is dismissed as “crap” or politically motivated. Highly regarded economists opinion, from Stiglitz to Eslake, are said to be irrelevant. The voluminous data from government agencies like the Australian Bureau of Statistics is also selectively ignored.
Australia is one of the most successful economies in the developed world. But within the strange fortress that has come to envelop Australian domestic politics, we have apparently been dogged by a series of calamities including:
- the cost of living crisis
- the productivity crisis
- the retail slump crisis
- government debt crisis
- emergency low interest rates
- the threat of sovereign risk
- the carbon tax catastrophe
- the budget emergency
- the border protection crisis
Back in the real world, Australia has experienced an economic miracle.
The macro-economic highlights of the last six years include the lowest interest rates in 60 years, consistently low unemployment with government policy admirably geared to job creation, maintenance of a AAA credit rating, a rating shared by only seven other countries in the world.
Labour productivity, after a period of prolonged inertia, has spiked up to its highest in a decade in the last two years, placing us in the world top 10 on this measure. In addition, despite hysterical protestations about the introduction of a carbon price and a mining tax, Australia is one of the lowest taxed countries in the OECD. A consistently low inflation rate lays to rest any suggestion of a cost of living problem. In fact, under the Gillard government, the increases in cost of living were the lowest for 25 years. We are one of the wealthiest, healthiest, happiest nations in the world with high living standards.
It is testament to the skill, discipline and persistence of the Coalition that it has been able to propagate a consistent series of catastrophist mythologies and then convince the public that it is best suited to manage the recovery from the “mess”. In response, Labor has shifted between resistance, timidity and defeat. Tragically, it communicated its considerable economic achievements – including dodging the global financial crisis using a stunningly successful Keynesian strategy – with all the flair of an undertaker contemplating a new career as a chartered accountant.
This is a strange time in which those earning wages in the top 10 percentile are described by Labor politicians as “battlers”. Labor icons have meekly capitulated in debates about reforming regressive tax rorts and forms of redistributive policy, and have adopted the Conservative taunt of “class warfare”. As Warren Buffett observed in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
This is all not to say that there are not important economic and other problems confronting the country. Australia will suffer enormously from damaging climate change, but we’re yet to come to grips with the idea that economic growth must also be sustainable. Our infrastructure, including rail, public transport and airports, is creaking and inadequate from underinvestment. Our tax take is too low to sustain necessary expenditure on health, education and other important services like the NDIS. Newstart and other welfare payments are woefully inadequate. Inequality has been widening for the last 30 years as those at the top get wealthier. Indigenous disadvantage remains a disgrace.
The Australian community supports addressing many of these problems, provided that any reform is painless and doesn’t raise taxes.
Globalisation and the technological revolution have opened up Australia to the rest of the world. We travel overseas in record numbers. We recruit overseas workers at a great rate. We export and import like never before. We outsource manufacturing and air pollution to China and other countries. We offshore. We buy overseas goods including with increasing frequency, by using the internet. We are in the midst of the Asian century.
But somehow, the Australian identity has become more insular, selfish and consumed with self-pity. We have been transformed into a nation of venal, selfish, shouty, complaining voices. Ask any federal politician how many expressions of angst they received from constituents when images of cruelty to animals in Indonesian abattoirs were released. Then ask the same politicians how that reaction compared to images of drowning asylum seekers. The animals won – easily.
So, again, what is to be done?
The labour movement has had to argue against the tide of public opinion in the past, and must fight unpopular causes now.
Harry Bridges led the International Longshoreman Workers Union (ILWU) for over 30 tumultuous years in the US. In the early 1930s he advocated racial equality for white and black Americans. At the time, his stance was unpopular, both within the ILWU, the broader union movement and the American community. It is said that Bridges addressed a mass meeting of dock workers and told them that if there were only two jobs left on the docks, he would want one to go to a black man and the other to a white man. His address was met by boos and catcalls from a hostile audience.
Bridges and his supporters persisted and he forged enduring relationships with the black community, particularly in San Francisco. He recruited black Americans into the union and by 1946, they constituted over 20% of ILWU members. Bridges said: “the position of the ILWU on the question of equality for all, regardless of race, creed, colour or national origin, is clear and unequivocal. We cannot and will not compromise on it for one moment, for to do so would be to pick up the banner of fascism where Hitler dropped it”.
Bridges reminds us of the power of political and moral leadership which endures in spite of adversity and unpopularity. It is also a powerful reminder that trade unions and the labour movement have supported causes that were initially unpopular but nevertheless the right thing to do. Think of the equal pay campaign for Aboriginal stockmen in the 1960s.
If the heart of antagonism to asylum seekers is in western Sydney, then we need to confront it there. Union leaders, like political leaders, are charged with a core responsibility that isn’t negotiable: the task of leading. Leading requires moral courage. We look after the underdog. If union members have turned against the underdog, the challenge is to confront them, prosecute the argument, listen, debate and over time, try and prevail.
Invariably when I debate these issues, I am frequently asked the question “If you don’t support the PNG solution, what is the solution?”
The solution is not Nauru, PNG, East Timor or Tuvalu. The solution is not a 10,000, 20,0000 or 50,000 humanitarian intake. It is not onshore. It is not offshore.
It is in our heads and our hearts.
The solution is to persuade enough people in this country that there is no crisis. The solution is to break the business model of politicians being rewarded for lying and dissembling to instil fear when there is nothing to fear. The solution is to stop treating the Australian community like it is cruel and ignorant.
Like other human rights issues, asylum seeker politics transcends the political divide. Bill Kelty recently attended the campaign launch of Greens politician Sarah Hansen-Young. In 2002, Kelty joined the board of A Just Australia, an organisation established to advocate decent asylum seeker policy. He has a profound commitment to decent asylum seeker policy.
Invariably, an issue as difficult and entrenched as this will require experimentation, risk and the making of mistakes. Alliances need to be forged with people in the Liberal Party who are supportive. Could Malcolm Turnbull be persuaded to demonstrate moral courage on this issue?
There are a large number of people in the business community who are repulsed by the race to the bottom. Unions should engage with them. There are others too, including members and supporters of the Greens, or the Palmer United party . Cathy McGowan, the new member for Indi, is committed to the decent treatment of asylum seekers. So are many others in rural communities. Is it possible that a cross party group of federal parliamentarians could be convened to work on this?
The quickest way to shift our country from abusing human rights is to remove the dividend that our politicians currently garner from investing in cruelty. To do so will require moral courage. In spades.
Image Credit: The Guardian
This article originally appeared on The Guardian Australia Website