Refugee policy: The fight to shift Labor

Labor supporters have been horrified by Julia Gillard’s efforts to drag the Labor Party further to the right. But the Labor leadership’s anti-refugee policies are meeting resistance in the party’s ranks.

In June, Victorian Labor for Refugees resolutions—opposing children in detention, the re-opening of Curtin and calling for an end to offshore processing—were supported by the Victorian Labor conference.

Labor for Refugees, a rank-and-file Labor Party group has begun to publicly stir. In the early 2000s, the group played an important role in shifting opinion among rank-and-file Labor and union members and in shifting Labor policy itself.

In the early years of the campaign the refugee movement consciously oriented to the organised labour movement to counter Howard’s attempt to entrench racism and anti-refugee sentiments. Now the campaign faces a similar task.

While encouraging The Greens and the independents to use parliament as a platform for refugee rights, the campaign will need to do more than denounce Gillard. Building a movement among Labor members and supporters will be crucial to the fight to shift Labor’s policies

In a book, soon to be released, Paul Howes, AWU national secretary, and supporter of Gillard’s Labor leadership coup, is quoted:

“… Unions can play an important role in breaking the ‘blame cycle’ which Australia has been caught in since 2001 on the issue of asylum seekers. By educating our membership and at the same time playing a leadership role within the ALP I am confident that in coming years our movement will be able to drag Labor out of the race to the bottom scenario we have found ourselves caught in for the last decade.”

Since the election, NT Labor Senator Trish Crossin has publicly called for children and families to be released from detention.

But we can’t afford to wait another three years. By maintaining the push for a regional processing centre, Gillard has set the scene for a repeat of the same “race to the bottom” over refugees at the next federal election.

Solidarity spoke to Jenny Haines a founding rank-and-file member of NSW Labor for Refugees.

What concerns does Labor for Refugees have with existing Labor policy?
Labor policy says that those refugees who arrive by boat in Australia should be processed in Australia. The last National Conference (2009) did not rescind the excision of those parts of Australia moved outside the boundaries of the migration zone by the Howard Government.

Robin Rothfield (Labor for Refugees, Victoria) made a very powerful speech about the stupidities of excision, but for some reason, Labor for Refugees was not allowed to put the excision issue to the floor for any vote or further discussion. The big question with Gillard’s policy is, “Will she send those refugees who arrive in Australia to Timor?” We don’t know and we oppose her doing this.

Many Labor supporters were horrified at Julia Gillard’s shift to the right on refugee policy and her election “race to the bottom” with Tony Abbott. Do you think Labor members support Gillard’s stance?
Every bit of evidence I get is that there is a divide between the party members and the politicians. Members support a more humane policy and process than the politicians are prepared to commit to.

State Conferences and National Conferences of the party since 2001 have significantly changed policy. There may be some current reluctance to make public waves for the Federal Government given the tense and tight numbers situation but that does not mean that party members are happy with the government’s direction on refugee policy.

Branches do send in resolutions expressing their dissatisfaction but the political class just seem to ignore them. It is a source of constant frustration. Some walked away from the party, witness the 7 per cent swing to the Greens at the last election after Gillard announced her refugee policy. Labor for Refugees, I believe, has a solid base in the party amongst the “silent majority.”

Labor For Refugees had an obvious presence at the refugee rally at Parliament House. Do you think L4R needs to do more public campaigning?
Labor for Refugees tends to do a lot of work behind the scenes, lobbying Ministers and politicians. I think it was good we had a presence at the rally and hope we do more of that. I think we have a mandate from all of those members of the party who support us and the conferences that have voted to change policy. Our big problem is getting the politicians to adhere to policy.


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