Show of unity leaves refugees and union rights in the lurch at Labor conference

Labor leader Bill Shorten told the party’s national conference in Adelaide people were looking to them for “unity” and “stability”. And the Labor factions made sure they gave it to him.

With the Coalition government falling to pieces and the federal election due by May, Labor can taste victory. And party leaders were desperate to ensure nothing might damage their chances.

As a result there were virtually no open debates or disagreements at the conference, with key issues left unresolved in order to project an image of unity.

There were no great expectations that the conference was going to move to close Manus and Nauru and end offshore processing.

But there were some important promises. Labor will scrap temporary visas and provide permanent visas for refugees. And for the many thousands of asylum seekers in Australia who have been cut off any income support, a Labor government will provide welfare, work rights and funding for legal support for protection applications.

Labor is committed to the medical transfer of any sick asylum seekers and refugees from Manus and Nauru, and it will increase the humanitarian intake to 32,000 by 2025.

The policy changes are all reasons to vote get Morrison and Dutton out.

But the conference also made it clear that over the crucial questions of offshore detention and the turnback of asylum boats the refugee movement will have to fight a Shorten Labor government.

Tragically the Labor left went along with the political argument that controversial questions should be avoided to portray a picture of party unity for the media. But the idea that refugees is a damaging electoral issue is the central reason that Labor have maintained a bi-partisan position with the Liberals to maintain offshore detention.

The Labor left caucus’ concession meant there wasn’t even a resolution from the Labor left caucus to force a discussion of ending offshore detention and “bringing them here” onto the floor of the conference. At the 2015 conference, the Labor left moved to end Labor support for turnbacks and won almost half of the conference.

The right-wing of the party took advantage of the left’s concession, and in a piece of pure vindictiveness—just to show who was boss—ensured that a motion to re-assess the 6000 asylum seekers who have been rejected under the fast-track system was voted down.

The myth that there are “third countries” that will resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru was left intact. One resolution said in part, “Labor will prioritise the resettlement of all eligible refugees currently on Manus and Nauru to the United States, New Zealand and other third-countries.”

No doubt the Labor leaders think that the $500 million (over five years) funding boost to the UNHCR might help find a third country. But it won’t.

The US deal is almost exhausted after accepting only 467 refugees. The vast majority of recent US resettlement results handed out on Manus and Nauru have been rejections, and there are almost 1000 people still stranded on Manus and Nauru.

Labor has a particular obligation to the asylum seekers and refugees who were sent to Manus and Nauru when the Rudd government declared in 2013 that no-one sent offshore would ever be allowed to resettle in Australia.

There should not be any argument. To gain protection, asylum seekers must be free to cross borders. Sending asylum seekers offshore violated their fundamental rights. All those offshore should be brought to Australia and given protection.

The push to get all kids off Nauru has almost achieved its goal, and in the process revealed the horror that is being inflicted on all those on Manus and Nauru. “Kids Off, All Off” has become the common sense position of the refugee movement. New layers of people have been drawn into the campaign.

There were important debates in the union movement in the run-up to the Labor conference, with many union delegates arguing against union secretaries that refugees should not be pragmatically traded off for industrial relations concessions from the Labor leaders.

The teacher walk-offs in November showed the potential of the union movement to throw its industrial weight in support of refugees. That potential is going to have to be used against a future Shorten government. Going quiet for Labor won’t free the refugees.

Issues unresolved despite tack left

The conference confirmed Labor’s move left in an effort to tap the mood of disgust at growing inequality and corporate greed.

Shorten’s opening address focused on inequality and low wages growth, as he appealed to those in, “insecure work… earning less than they deserve… and yet paying more tax than a multinational company.”

As the conference opened, Labor announced plans to fund 250,000 new affordable homes, rented at 80 per cent of market rates—although this is not public housing, since they are leaving it to the private sector to build them.

There was also a discernible tilt towards reassuring business that Labor would look after their interests, as Shorten promised to give them, “the confidence and incentive to invest and grow”, and to deliver “consensus”.

It was a welcome call that Labor will end to the racist CDP program. This forces Aboriginal people in remote communities to work for the dole for long hours and with harsh penalties for non-compliance, leading to widespread hunger. It will be replaced with a new program that Labor says will reassert community control and development in remote areas and offer fair pay, though the number of real jobs on offer is still unclear.

Labor has also made recognising Palestine as an independent state “an important priority”, agreed in principle to sign the nuclear ban treaty and to raise foreign aid—but the details and timing were all left to an incoming Labor government.

They also failed to commit to increasing Newstart, agreeing only to an “urgent review” within the first 18 months of winning office. After over 20 years without an increase the payment has fallen so low that it is now impossible to live on.

In an effort to deliver equal pay for women, Labor wants to allow the Fair Work Commission would to consider pay equity in award decisions covering female-dominated industries like early childhood education and disability services. There was also agreement to nation-wide industrial manslaughter laws to hold bosses accountable for killing someone at work.

The conference also reasserted existing commitments on industrial relations, including the scrapping of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission as well as some form of industry-wide bargaining—without providing any further details on which industries would be covered. Labor’s Michael O’Connor has made it clear that the party is looking only at expanding existing industry bargaining provisions in low-paid industries like childcare and cleaning.

On climate change, Labor reaffirmed its policy of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, but will not promise to halt the Adani mine or other fossil fuel projects.

Shorten closed the conference by declaring that “we are ready”. He means “ready for government.” But from industry-wide bargaining to the right to strike, increasing Newstart, the Adani mine and refugees, Labor’s policies are far short of the radical change to neo-liberalism that is needed.

A mass turnout for the refugee rallies on Palm Sunday in April 2019 can again put tens of thousands on the streets to end offshore detention. The same power that got the kids off Nauru can get everyone off Manus and Nauru and to Australia.

And a re-invigorated union movement that is willing to take the fight to Labor will be needed to break the chains of enterprise bargaining and break the rules set by the Fair Work Commission—in order to reverse the years of the Liberals ruling for the rich.

By Ian Rintoul and James Supple


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