Gillard: new leader, same racist, pro-big business politics

On June 24, Julia Gillard was sworn in as Australia’s first woman prime minister after the right-wing faction withdrew its support for Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s support had evaporated so quickly that he didn’t even contest the leadership ballot. This made Rudd one of the shortest serving prime ministers, the shortest being Frank Forde who held the office for eight days in 1945. As Rudd’s deputy and his minister for workplace relations, employment, education and “social inclusion”, Gillard proved to be as conservative as any other Labor cabinet member.

Big-end of town elated

The replacement of Rudd with Gillard was motivated by political expediency to shore up votes before the coming federal election with leaders of the ALP calling it “essential”. The mining bosses were quick to show their approval. Andrew Forrest, CEO of Fortescue Metals, named by Forbes magazine earlier this year as Australia’s richest person, welcomed the appointment of Gillard after she stated that she was prepared to negotiate with the mining companies over Rudd’s Resources Super Profits Tax proposal. Gillard also announced that she was ending the Labor government’s advertising campaign on the tax. The mining companies quickly accepted the truce in the “ad war”.

Following a deal with BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, Gillard announced on July 2, “There will be a government profit-based tax regime, but there will be no resources super profit tax”. The RSPT, with its 40% tax on all mining company profits above 6%, was replaced under the deal with the Mineral Resources Rent Tax, with a tax rate of 30% on profits above 12% on coal and iron ore mining (excluding those companies that have annual profits below $50 million). The MRRT regime will provide coal and iron ore mining companies with a 25% extraction allowance, making their effective tax rate 22.5%.

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitch Hooke declared the deal, “A positive outcome for Australia and the Australian minerals industry”. His view was echoed by mining union national president Tony Maher, who stated: “The infrastructure spend goes ahead, the superannuation spend goes ahead, that’s a win.” It’s certainly a win for BHP, which can now mine the world’s biggest uranium deposit (at Olympic Dam in South Australia) and the world’s biggest silver mine (at Cannington in Queensland) without parting with a single extra cent of its profits from these mines.

Refugees – Gillard’s first target

On June 25, Gillard indicated that she would take a tougher stand against asylum seekers arriving in Australian territory on unauthorised boat arrivals, stating “I am full of understanding of the perspective of the Australian people – they want strong management of our borders and I will provide it”. Despite publicly acknowledging that these asylum seekers amount to less than 1.6% of Australia’s annual immigrant intake, Gillard announced on July 6 that her government wanted all such asylum seekers to be “processed” in a “regional processing centre” in East Timor. In a speech that day to the Lowy Institute, she announced that she had raised this idea with East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta, but not with the East Timorese government. The next day she was spruiking the policy from a gunboat during a navy exercise off Darwin.

When the Howard Coalition government announced the establishment of a refugee detention centre on the Pacific island state of Nauru in May 2003, Gillard told the federal parliament that “Labor will end the so-called Pacific solution — the processing and detaining of asylum seekers on Pacific islands — because it is costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of principle.” The Rudd government did indeed end the “Pacific solution”, but retained the “principle” of off-shore detention of “boat people” — on Christmas Island. Gillard has now come up with her own version of the “Pacific solution” — the Timor Sea Solution.

Gillard has retained the six-month freeze of refugee claims from the intensifying US-led war in Afghanistan announced earlier this year by Rudd. Sixty per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are Afghans, and nearly all them are from ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who are not only persecuted by the Taliban, but by supporters of the Afghan government. The day Gillard became prime minister, 11 Hazaras were beheaded in the capital of the Afghan province of Oruzgan in which Australian troops are deployed in large numbers. While 61% of Australian voters want the Australian forces withdrawn from Afghanistan, Gillard personally phoned US president Barack Obama to assure him of the Labor government’s support for the US-led occupation of the country.

The fact that many of the Afghan asylum seekers arriving by boat have already been assessed by the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as being refugees gives the lie to the claims that they are “queue jumpers”. The simple fact is there is no “queue” or processing system for asylum seekers who have fled from Afghanistan to Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Furthermore, the Australian government refused to accept any asylum seekers assessed as refugees by the UNHCR who have arrived after 2007 in Indonesia, and in the past three years the Australian government has settled each year an average of just 52 refugees from Indonesia in Australia.

Even the immigration department acknowledges that the “boatpeople” are not “queue jumpers”. In recent months, the rate of refused requests for asylum in Australia from Afghan “boatpeople” has shot up from below 20% to 70%. Those who have had their claims rejected are termed “failed asylum-seekers” and are held in indefinite detention.

Appealing to xenophobia

A few days after her first address as PM, Gillard told the corporate media that there needed to be an end to “political correctness” and in typical doublespeak added: “People should feel free to say what they feel and for people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant. It certainly doesn’t make them a racist it means they’re expressing a genuine view.”

But what is this “genuine” view? The “anxiety” that Australians feel about refugees arriving here in boats fleeing from war and persecution is one born from the racist hysteria whipped up by the corporate media and the legacy of a “White Australia”. “Border protection” has become a mantra in Australian mainstream politics and evokes images reminiscent of the 1950s propaganda of the threat of the “yellow hordes” invading Australia.

Much of the corporate media is always quick to label the “boatpeople” as “illegal immigrants”. However, under the 1951 UN refugee convention, to which Australia is a signatory, no asylum seeker is “illegal”, no matter how they arrive. Australia’s own Migration Act allows for entry to Australia without a visa for the purpose of seeking asylum.

Last year, about 190,000 permanent migrants and another 110,000 on long-term visas came to Australia, compared to 2726 “boatpeople”. So far this year, Australia has been “flooded” by 3684 asylum seekers arriving by boat. Yet, according to a June survey conducted by Essential Research, 10% of Australians thought that “boatpeople” accounted for half of Australia’s total immigration intake, 15% thought they accounted for about a quarter and 13% thought they accounted for 10%. Only 18% of those surveyed were aware of the true figure. There are about 50,000 visa overstayers living illegally in Australia, but because these are overwhelmingly white people — from Britain, New Zealand and the US — there is no uproar about “protecting” Australia’s borders from such “illegals”.

Gillard’s trajectory of appealing to the xenophobia of much of the Australian electorate was demonstrated again with her comments on population growth: “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population. I don’t support the idea of a big Australia ... We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.” A few months ago the Treasury department had estimated that Australia’s population could grow from its current size of 22 million to 36 million by 2050, largely as a result of immigration. This is roughly the same rate of increase as over the past 40 years.

When the Treasury issued its population growth estimate Rudd declared he favoured a “big Australia”. Apart from placating racist fears of non-white immigration undermining the “Australian way of life”, Gillard’s statement was also an appeal to the reactionaries in the environment movement who falsely attribute environmental destruction to population growth.

The ALP has a long history of fostering racist xenophobia. At the top of its founding platform was the “White Australia” policy, which was in line with the Australian capitalist ruling class’s view that “racial purity” was essential to fostering class-collaborationist nationalism within the Australian working class. The unwritten message of this nationalism is that Australian-born bosses and workers have a common interest against “outsiders”, particularly non-white working people in the Third World.