Malaysia solution scuttled, now let’s end mandatory detention

The last month has been one of the most dramatic in the history of the refugee movement. There was euphoria at the High Court decision that found the Malaysia Agreement unlawful. And then disgust as Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen sunk to a new low and demanded that Tony Abbott support changes to the Migration Act to give them carte blanche to expel asylum seekers—including unaccompanied minors—to any third country.

Watching Julia Gillard proclaim that Abbott couldn’t turn back the boats, but Labor’s Malaysia Agreement could, was sickening. It was worse even than watching then Labor leader Kim Beazley capitulate to Howard during the Tampa affair in 2001. Gillard has resorted to scaremongering about the numbers of boats that will arrive if the government is denied third country processing. She even accuses Abbott of encouraging people smugglers. Gillard and Bowen have trotted out every rotten Liberal lie of the last 15 years.

The Labor government even unleashed Immigration Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe, who briefed Abbott on the amendments. Metcalfe made headlines after suggesting that without the amendments Australia was risking social upheaval similar to the recent London riots. But third country processing has been policy for little more than six of the last 15 years. Even the hysterical predictions of 600 asylum seekers a month arriving only amounts to 7200 a year—a tiny number.

It seems certain that Gillard’s amendments will be defeated, as both the Liberals and The Greens oppose them. This means that third country processing will remain unlawful, so all asylum seekers will be processed in Australia.

The only reason Abbott is voting against the amendments is political opportunism—he can smell Julia Gillard’s political blood in the water. He wants third country processing as much as Gillard but wants Gillard’s scalp even more. Abbott pretends that Nauru is a more humanitarian solution—as if Abbott was interested in being humane towards refugees. And he also wants temporary protection visas and to turn boats around at sea.

But if this clash of the hypocrites means the end of third country processing, the refugee campaign needs to seize on the opportunity.

Labor’s mandatory detention policy means there are still around 4500 asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. Almost 1600 are refugees waiting for security clearances. Another 600 are stateless. Similarly Labor remains committed to maintaining discriminatory offshore processing on Christmas Island. And it plans to expand its detention regime, with a new detention centre at Darwin to open in November.

Cracks inside Labor

The debate in the Labor Party has dramatically opened up. After vacillating for the past few months, the Labor Left has finally taken a stand in caucus and voted against Gillard’s third country amendments. It is yet to be seen whether any Left MPs are willing to cross the floor or absent themselves from the vote in Parliament. But their stand has given a boost to those—inside and outside the party—fighting to change Labor’s policies.

A Victorian member of Labor for Refugees, Lev Lafayette, has now made a formal complaint that Gillard is violating the Labor platform. This could technically see Gillard disciplined or even expelled. That is very unlikely to happen but it indicates the scale of bitterness surrounding Gillard’s disgraceful lurch to the right.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says he will move to change the platform to bring it in line with the Malaysia Agreement at Labor’s national conference in December. Labor for Refugees, however, is campaigning to extend Labor’s pro-refugee platform to end mandatory detention and review the refugee determination system.

The campaign among unions and Labor branches needs to be stepped up over the next few months. The NSW NTEU has carried resolutions opposing mandatory detention and third country processing. Young Labor carried a resolution opposing offshore processing and mandatory detention at its annual conference.

Gillard’s credibility is shot to bits. She might win the vote at the Labor national conference but she is losing the war her government has waged against refugees. Tensions are rising in detention as the length of detention grows for more and more asylum seekers. For two weeks in September, asylum seekers in Darwin held daily protests. Every resolution, every protest brings the freedom for refugees that much closer.


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