The refugee rights movement and the ALP

As predicted, the ALP national conference was another low point for the neoliberal pro-capitalist party, which adopted offshore processing as part of its platform. It was a win for Chris Bowen, the immigration minister, who gained support for putting the weight of the party behind the government’s proposed Malaysia solution. Bowen sought to bargain with refugee rights supporters within the party, who had criticised him for violating “Labor principles”, by promising to increase the refugee intake to 20,000 people. This is described as an “aspirational” target, meaning that it will mostly be ignored.

Bowen said the amended platform showed Labor had a “soft heart but a hard head” when it came to refugees. Even the reverse is not true. It has no heart, and if it has a head, it is deep in the sand. The platform calls for “regional cooperation and bilateral arrangements” to process refugees — in other words, state support to sanction human rights abuses and repatriate people to danger.


Linda Scott, a delegate from Labor for Refugees (L4R), spoke against the motion to change the platform. “Labor for Refugees supports increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake”, she said, “but we will not do so by making a deal that sends people away from Australian shores who are seeking our help ... Join with me today in looking to the light on the hill and not in the shadows of the past.” Reflecting divisions within the party, the vote was 206 in favour of Bowen’s amendments and 179 in favour of L4R’s amendments. The Right faction refused to allow NSW opposition leader John Robertson and L4R co-convener Shane Prince, both from the Right faction, to speak in support of L4R’s resolutions. They dredged up former PM John Howard’s arguments about people smuggling to win the debate; if there was ever any light on the hill, it’s long gone.

Five speakers from the left spoke: Melissa Parke, MP for Fremantle, Linda Scott co-convener of L4R NSW, Darren Dwyer of L4R Victoria and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union delegate, Michelle O’Neill, national secretary of the Textile Clothing & Footwear Union, and Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.

A setback for refugee rights

The government is now seeking to work out with the conservative opposition a common policy to establish offshore processing. This is a setback for the refugee rights movement and a demoralising outcome for L4R. Adding insult to injury, at a rally held outside the conference a section of refugee rights protesters heckled one of the NSW co-conveners of L4R, Shane Prince, calling out, some by megaphone, “Give up your job”, “Resign, resign” and “Shame, Labor, shame”. Shane Prince is not employed in any capacity by the ALP or any trade union. He is a lawyer who has worked pro bono for refugees.

Diane Hiles from Children Out of Detention (ChilOut), who was chairing the rally, was also heckled and jeered. Members of Solidarity rightly said that it gave the “impression of a campaign that was at war with its own supporters”. It certainly created an atmosphere of unease and division. The speakers had been invited by the NSW Refugee Action Collective, and no one at the organising meetings for the rally had objected to them being included on the platform. Material advertising the rally clearly stated that there would by speakers from L4R, yet no objections to this had been raised in any of the activist groupings around the country.

Most of the heckling was by interstate members of Socialist Alternative, but it is not clear whether it was orchestrated. Most likely it was a spontaneous outpouring of rage and youthful exuberance, but it is also a result of a long and bitter rivalry with Solidarity, both organisations having split away from the former International Socialist Organisation. Apart from being plain stupid, it was a simultaneously sectarian and opportunist effort (quite a feat), elevating a petty rivalry above the needs of the movement. The previous day, Socialist Alternative had applauded and cheered Rainbow Labor at the same-sex marriage rally, seemingly without reservation.

The response from Solidarity has, however, not been particularly edifying either. After the fallout from the rally, they aroused controversy by insisting that NSW RAC formulate a statement that castigated Socialist Alternative for their actions. What followed was a divisive, destructive and fractious debate on what the refugee rights movement’s position towards the ALP should be.

The statement contained the following words: “Labor conference was marred by attempts during the rally to shout down Shane Prince, the representative of Labor for Refugees, who was an invited speaker to the rally. The rally chair, Dianne Hiles from ChilOut, also faced being shouted down, when she called on those interrupting the invited speaker to allow him to finish. RAC Sydney believes this persistent attempt, including the use of megaphones to disrupt the rally, was totally counter-productive for the refugee rights movement.”

Solidarity has overstated the role that L4R plays in the refugee rights campaign and has asserted that activists from Socialist Alternative made a grave error, as if their actions had caused long-term damage within the movement. On RAC NSW’s email list accusations were made that members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the party that produces Direct Action, were heckling the speakers. Why these accusations were made is unclear. As a member of that party, I can say I most certainly wasn’t, although I did engage with the rest of the rally in chanting “Shame, Labor, Shame” at various times, but stopping when the speakers wanted to continue.

It is not the position of the RSP to exclude members of L4R from speaking at refugee rights demonstrations, but neither do we consider they are of central importance to the movement. With the adoption of the statement by NSW RAC, Solidarity no doubt feels some vindication for raising the debate. Socialist Alternative has hit back with some arguments that are anything but constructive, accusing Solidarity of being Labor-centric, citing the fact that no Greens members were invited onto the platform. This is a strange juxtaposition, considering that it was a Labor conference and that, while their position on refugees is streets ahead of the ALP’s, the Greens are exclusively focused on the parliamentary road of seeking social change, with very little involvement in any of the activist groups.

Other activists within NSW RAC have gone further, claiming that Solidarity has no interest in building a broader movement and is consciously holding it back in order to focus exclusively on winning support from members of the ALP. This is simply slander and completely lacking in any rational perspective. Ian Rintoul and Mark Goudkamp, members of Solidarity, have worked hard for many years, are respected nationally for their work in the refugee rights movement and have been involved in many different aspects of the campaign, coordinating complex legal challenges, liaising with the media to raise the movement’s profile, seeking solidarity from the union movement and working hard to build a base on university campuses and in the community.

Paper backfires

However, despite their experience and perhaps against their better judgement, they have contributed to a position paper that amounts to a point-scoring exercise, and it’s backfired. It’s hard to see how the statement could improve relations on the left. Any debate around the statement, its endorsement or otherwise inevitably leads to the question of how to relate to the ALP, which none of the groups have developed a formal position on. There was certainly no urgent or crucial need for it to be discussed in Perth. (We’ve generally behaved pretty well and there has been no dissension on how to relate to the ALP.) What it has done is blow the issue out of proportion and intensify the discord. Further, simply issuing a statement is no guarantee that the issue will be debated. At a meeting of the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) in Perth, Socialist Alternative members were conspicuously absent from a meeting where it was to be debated and the issue was dropped from the agenda.

In any case, it wouldn’t have amounted to much of a debate, and some, including myself, were opposed to having it at all. Socialist Alternative member Alexis Vassiley had already posted on RRAN’s email list that “... shouting down Shane Prince definitely wasn’t great ... On the broader point of our approach to the Labor Party and unions, I think we in RRAN WA need to do things like jump on any opportunity we get of people inside the party speaking out — e.g. the State Labor pollies who criticised aspects of the Malaysia Solution. We need to welcome whoever will speak out against the current appalling policies of the govt, and when it’s ALP people doing this, especially, but not just MPs, it helps to give the campaign a broad appeal, can help change the public debate, and help give pro-refugee supporters confidence.” This is the correct approach for all socialists and refugee rights activists. It is the approach most socialist organisations have historically taken towards the ALP.

United front

This is most certainly a time when the refugee rights movement needs greater collaboration, unity and coordination, but there are many different conceptions of how to go forward. A common misconception is that you need L4R beavering away inside the Labor Party and you need activism bringing the issues to the streets. This delineation is not helpful in determining how to build a mass campaign. A far better formulation would be to make use of L4R to help build a broad movement, but L4R is by no means central to the campaign or even necessary for it to be successful.

The Labor Party is so moribund as a vehicle for progressive social change that orienting towards it is barely debatable. The hardship that the refugee rights movement faces is that it is still quite small. This presents the danger that some sections of it could champion small “vanguard” actions or stunts as an alternative to building a broader movement that seeks to win public opinion over to the cause of refugee rights.

The general approach of activist groups has been to unite around the single issue of ending mandatory detention, and this is still the correct approach. Activists involved in these groups have various positions on the character of the ALP and how to relate to it; some may actually have no position at all or care nothing for parliamentary politics. Formalising a position on how the grass roots movement should relate to the ALP will do nothing but split the movement into competing factions.

The movement needs to include all who are opposed to mandatory detention, regardless of how they relate to the ALP. Decisions also need to be in the hands of the groups themselves, not imposedĀ  from Sydney on the rest of the movement. Conflicting views can be debated within the groups or parties involved, but the terms and limits of debate cannot be set by any particular body. This is simply not possible with such a diverse movement, which has no national structure to facilitate differences that arise.

Despite the length of time that the refugee movement has been in existence, it is still fledgling and not developed enough to settle these questions through protracted debates. Only the practice of struggle will determine the correct approach. The movement’s leaders can influence the positions taken during the campaign only by example and not by decree.

What is obvious to most participants is that the movement needs to be completely independent of the two major parties, but it is not at the stage where it can draw up its own program of action to change society and compete for power. That is why the tactics of the united front are so important.

The tactic of the united front has its historical origin in the practice of the Bolshevik party, but it is also used by many different groupings involved in campaigns for social justice today. Revolutionary socialists are a tiny minority with few connections to any mass base among the working class. The united front offers a method of working with larger numbers of non-revolutionary workers and their allies. It inherently means seeking agreements with non revolutionary political forces. It is not an end in itself, but a means to unify and mobilise as many people as possible drawing them away from the influence of pro-capitalist leaders, advancing their consciousness through experience in action. Whilst the goal is to win workers to revolutionary politics and an understanding of the correct line of march, there is no precondition on who to work with (or what they might think of the ALP) except common agreement with the basic objectives of the campaign.

(Andrew Martin is an activist with RRAN and member of the RSP.)