The ALP national conference in Sydney on December 3 and 4 should present an opportunity for the ALP to reassess its policy of mandatory detention and an opportunity to adopt a more humane approach towards refugees. But no one is waiting with bated breath. Since its election in 2007, the ALP government has reinforced the Howard government’s demonising of people seeking protection from war and persecution.
Regardless of which faction has the numbers or what factions the cabinet is made up of, the highly centralised right-wing Labor leaders have no intention of allowing any real debate within the party. The conferences have steadily become stage-managed affairs and US-style celebrity events.
While the ALP may dominate the leadership of every trade union in the country, it has no real mass base among the working class. Most of its members are disempowered and disillusioned. With every right-wing knee-jerk twist and turn, its membership falters and people’s hopes in it as an institution for progressive social change are further eroded.
Race to the bottom
On refugees, the Rudd-Gillard government has engaged in a xenophobic race to the bottom. Posing in military fatigues on a gunboat, Gillard in her election campaign purported to empathise with people’s “anxieties” about refugees. In office she has addressed those “anxieties” with utter ruthlessness. At no point has the government sought to explain that the fears stoked by corporate shock jocks, Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and the like are completely irrational and based on racist assumptions.
The ALP may use the national conference to allow some of its members to let off steam about refugees, uranium and gay marriage. It is certainly facing some internal backlash, particularly in the inner city branches in Sydney and Melbourne. At least 26 branches have passed a condemnation motion, stating that offshore processing is an attempt by the federal government to avoid its obligations and calling on it to uphold the Labor Party platform. At least 10 inner Sydney branches have passed similar motions, which have been broadly worded by Labor for Refugees.
The motions are unlikely to have any affect on the government, which remains committed to overturning the High Court’s ruling against offshore processing. The vote of Western Australian National Tony Crook, who sits on the cross benches, is likely to decide whether the legislation for offshore processing gets through the House of Representatives. It is likely the WA nationals will bargain away human rights for cash, seeking extra funding for rural regions in WA in exchange for their support for the bill. But even if it passes the House, it will be defeated in the Senate.
Dominance of media
Gillard has willingly led the ALP into a corner, but there are many factors involved apart from misleadership. One is the dominance of the corporate media in setting the political agenda, dialogue and tone of debate. There is very little to hold the corporate media accountable apart from grassroots media such as this paper, the growth of internet blogs and the mobilisation of people in action.
The media moguls can determine the fate of a leader more than any faction chieftain within the ALP. Rudd’s downfall was driven more by the media than by internal wrangling and his own ineptitude. The Murdoch press is a moulder of social psychology and a key platform for the ruling class’s nationalist ideology. Murdoch’s Newscorp controls 70% of newsprint media in this country. While the ruling class may allow a “softer government in times of economic or political crisis, it quickly switches its backing to its favoured demagogues and opportunists in the Liberal Party when the opportunity arises.
The Murdoch press’s stock in trade is fear, anger and resentment. Refugees are a favourite target in its war of division. With the fiction of invasion by “boat people”, it has used refugees to pull away Labor supporters in the industrial rustbelts and suburban wastelands that have suffered under decades of neoliberal attacks by both Labor and Liberal. Rusted on Labor supporters became “Howard’s battlers”.
Without any political alternative presented to them, people can make decisions only out of self-interest. If a large section of the population has become swinging voters it’s not because they feel empowered but because they have become estranged and apathetic towards the two main parties.
While Howard’s industrial relations agenda of “Workchoices” was too bitter a pill for the working class, the state Labor governments have been just as bitter, mired in corruption and scandals. The lines between Labor and Liberal have become so blurred that people perceive very little difference between them.
There is a science to the manipulation that enables a minority to exert considerable influence over the ideas of the majority. The propaganda of the corporate media is immensely powerful. They are aided by the fact that people have less and less time to contemplate broader issues that don’t directly affect them, working longer hours in jobs where their labour is continually being intensified. Meaningless sound bites become a substitute for real political discussion.
For the corporate media, nationalism is a favoured distraction from real issues. It encourages xenophobic sentiments such as fears of particular ethnicities or religions. Refugees’ legitimate claim for asylum is negated by depicting them as violent and criminal. The arguments don’t have to be logical. In the West Australian in December last year, a picture of a young girl dressed in pink and wearing pink knee boots was plastered on the front cover with the title “Australia’s latest boat arrivals”. The implication was that because she was well dressed, she didn’t deserve protection.
The Murdoch media don’t intend to make it any easier for the ALP to get out of its quagmire, and it would seem that neither do the ALP leaders. They continue to dance to the drumbeat of the corporate media, trying to outflank the Liberals by scapegoating refugees. The further this race to the bottom is run, the more hysterical is the demonisation.
The Melbourne Herald-Sun is one of the most reactionary parts of the Murdoch empire. Its portrayal of refugees is completely dehumanising and populist. It routinely depicts refugees as a “burden on the taxpayer”. It even made a sensation about the cost of flying refugees to the funerals of their family members after the Christmas Island shipwreck tragedy.
The West Australian is little better. When journalists do try to present the facts of detention, the rates of self-harm and length of incarceration, their stories are sidelined or reduced to one or two paragraphs. Most stories have portrayed refugees as “violent” when they protest against their long detention. The violence of detention, the abuse by security guards, the overcrowding, the arbitrary humiliations are never reported.
Former ALP prime minister Paul Keating, in a fit of self-righteousness, recently criticised the government’s stance on refugees in an interview with the ABC: “And by the way, if you want to come here, we’re putting a fence around the place. It’s verboten to cross the border. It’s all right if you fly in on a tourist visa into our main airports and overstay or run off into the community. We won’t demonise you for that, but if you arrive in a leaky boat, we will.”
Yet it was Keating who introduced mandatory detention in 1992. The then immigration minister, Gerry Hand, said at the time: “The government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community”. This barely differs from Howard’s statement: “We’ll decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they arrive”.
In May 1992, “migration custody” was limited to 273 days. Hand said then: “The [Keating] government has no wish to keep people in custody indefinitely, and I could not expect the parliament to support such a suggestion”. When the Migration Reform Bill 1992 was read for a second time in parliament only seven months later, it did exactly that: introduce mandatory indefinite detention.
The ALP introduced mandatory detention for much the same reason it is clinging to it today. The issue was used to deflect attention from growing inequality and the fact that in 10 years in government the ALP had done nothing to improve the lives of working people. It was introduced when the “wave” of people arriving by boat, mainly Cambodians and Chinese, was fewer than 500 a year. Chinese boat arrivals peaked at just over 1000 in 1994.
To justify mandatory detention, the government claimed that without it Australia would face a “flood” of asylum seekers. WA Labor Senator Jim McKiernan claimed in 1992 that if “the refugee assessment procedure was changed, Australia would be inundated, and boats filled with people who can afford the fare and the bribes that go with it will land on our shores by the score”. In 1995, he warned that if one particular piece of migration legislation were not passed, “Turning boats around at sea may be the only way to stop the floodgates opening ...”
Racism in the ’90s was largely directed against people of Asian descent. Most asylum seekers now arrive from the Middle East, displaced by wars that the Australian government supports. The ALP has done nothing to counter the racism directed against people seeking protection, but has instead perpetuated it.