Some moments have “turning point” written all over them. So it was when Liz and I started Left Flank three years and two weeks ago, when we highlighted a speech by Julia Gillard justifying her “lurch to the Right” on border security, and compared her language with that of John Howard — defending Hansonism — from 1996. Over the next three years Gillard’s active participation in the race to the bottom on asylum would come to be the one aspect of her record that not even her most enthusiastic supporters on the Left could fully justify (although many tried, usually portraying her as the victim of an all-powerful Abbott).
We set up this blog because we felt a responsibility to analyse, in concrete terms, the crisis of political representation that underpinned the rightward drift of the political elite on such issues. Our starting point was that any serious alternative that could transcend the degeneration of official politics would have to be based on an honest assessment of it, including how it involved the Left more broadly, in particular the Greens.
The turning point of 19 July 2013, the brutal piece of realpolitik delivered by Kevin Rudd with his ministers and the PNG prime minister flanking him, will also unleash a chain of events that we can only begin to understand the outlines of today. Nevertheless it demands from the Left a response qualitatively different to the one that has dominated the last six years.
The callousness of Rudd’s decision that all future boat arriving asylum seekers will be denied Australian residence is matched by the insistence that no exceptions will be made for women, children, unaccompanied minors or those with health problems, but combined with improvement in the conditions in which asylum seekers are assessed. This mix of instruments is intended for maximum neutralisation of Abbott and to cut against the idea that the Australian government is treating people poorly — it’s merely resettling them in “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention”. The talk of regional and international engagement dismisses as fantasy the idea that border security issues can be resolved unilaterally. And the plan to raise the annual refugee intake is meant to convince many of Rudd’s fundamental benevolence. In many ways the plan is much less immediately barbaric than the limbo of the “Malaysia Solution”.
What we can say is that the last three years of the Left in government, with the Greens closely aligned with Gillard for most of that time, has ended with Rudd able to decisively impose a policy that successfully outflanks Abbott to the Right and simultaneously recasts the entire debate in a way the Left is ill-prepared for. Unlike Abbott (with Gillard tailing him), Rudd makes no promise of quick fixes, and neither does he claim that other governments (i.e. Indonesia’s) will come to the party if Australia simply moves to “stop the boats”. Instead, he delivers an approach that demonstrates Australia’s regional imperialist power, and effectively confers most favoured colony status on PNG as reward.Of course there will be some cost on Labor’s Left flank. Supporters of refugee rights have protested across the country this weekend. The new policy has driven many ALP supporters to apoplexies of outrage. I cannot recall the last time such vitriol was arrayed against the ALP by Labor supporters, with resignations being declared on social media. Certainly there was no such reaction when Gillard joined with Abbott to reintroduce Howard’s Pacific Solution. Indeed it now seems that some ALP supporters loved their party more when it was trying to win the race to the bottom but losing, rather than winning like it is under Rudd.
How much this will repeat past instances of ALP votes breaking to the Greens remains to be seen. Labor candidate Cath Bowtell, running against the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne, has unsurprisingly attacked the policy. However, many — including some activists — will also greet the shift from detention hellholes to community resettlement (even if it is in an impoverished country with a weak state) as a humane step, although one laced with toughness. On today’s 1000-strong Sydney rally — pulled together at short notice by activists, including from young Greens networks — I was struck how chants like “free the refugees” and “close the camps” will soon be rendered mostly irrelevant by Rudd’s brutal manoeuvre.
More significantly, for the first time since becoming leader Abbott has been forced to embrace a Labor policy on asylum. If Abbott’s silly revision of Howard’s 2004 “trust” formula is any guide — “Do you trust the party that is the original and the best when it comes to stopping the boats?” — Rudd’s shift almost certainly represents a decisive blow to the LNP’s election strategy. More worryingly for Abbott, well-connected Howard biographer Peter van Onselen last night tweeted:
The problem for the Coalition is that its “stop the boats” posturing relied on disregard for the views of the Indonesian regime, which Gillard never seriously challenged them on. Since Rudd’s return Indonesia has stated its opposition to unilateral Australian action so clearly that Scott Morrison resorted to desperately claiming that Bob Carr had used “union-style Sussex Street” tactics to get them to say it!
Rudd’s turn also exposes the weakness of the broader refugee rights movement over the course of the Rudd-Gillard era, which has been characterised by a slump in activism compared with the Howard years. With Labor’s 2007 election victory and subsequent softening of policy, some campaign groups wound themselves up on the basis that the government had sufficiently liberalised the border regime. While groups like Refugee Action Coalition correctly argued that this would be disastrous in the long-term, as with so many other issues there was great pressure to simply let the government do its work.
The resurgence of border politics in 2009-10 was accompanied by some revival of protest activity, but from the dying days of Rudd’s first term through the Gillard era it became clear that many opponents of Howard — perhaps most infamously Robert Manne — had decided that defending Labor meant accepting many of the Right’s arguments. There was also a tendency for some campaigners to get dragged into arguments that left the basic case put by the major parties unquestioned: That border security was a real issue, that asylum seekers needed to be “deterred” from coming, and that the issue could be resolved legalistically in terms of obligations under international law. This process reached its low point with excruciating hand-wringing over how much barbarity towards boat people was needed to “save lives”, as if this couldn’t be solved by simply providing a decent ferry service.
The only consistent and realistic alternative to such convoluted justifications is a policy of open borders. Yet from the NGOs to the Greens (and even the Refugee Action Coalition), this was usually seen as utopian dreaming rather than pragmatic policy and, at best, a nice idea for some unspecified date in the future. Such arguments missed three hard lessons of history: (1) That migration involves real human beings making difficult, considered choices about whether and where to move and so will not be halted through policies of deterrence, (2) that states run highly inconsistent migration policies based on a dynamic contradiction between economic goals and the political value of excluding “others”, and (3) that the ideological justifications for tough policies are a smokescreen for their function in securing authority for politicians.
Until such arguments start to get a hearing more widely it will be too easy for the Left to again be hamstrung politically. You can see it in how Rudd has trumped arguments about “push” and “pull” factors, which treat refugees as passive victims of events beyond their control whose own choices are not part of the equation, by promising safe resettlement to all boat arrivals. It’s just that he will resettle them somewhere they don’t want to go. Having spent so much time claiming that “genuine” refugees have no real choice but to attempt the dangerous journey to Australia, some activists will now have problems defending refugees’ preference to come here over PNG.
Because refugee supporters looked first to Rudd and then the Gillard government to do something about the Right’s attacks, they opened themselves up to being lured by apparently “pragmatic” positions that could not actually deliver real-world solutions. Rudd has now delivered a real-world solution of a different kind, full of superficially humane process but a deeply unjust outcome. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young pointed to the contradictions involved:
Permanently resettling refugees in Papua New Guinea is no way to respond to people seeking protection. The government can’t have it both ways. It has already said it’s sending people to PNG as a cruel punishment, now it wants to say it is an appropriate place to permanently resettle refugees.
It is promising that the Greens have responded as clearly as they have, but their close association with the Gillard government finds them weaker than they were three years ago. Even though asylum was probably the issue where they maintained greatest distance from the ALP, it was still an issue where, Bob Brown complained, he’d bitten his tongue to help the alliance. He added: “I get asked on this immigration question, as with others, well, why aren’t we bringing this government down? Because you get Tony Abbott.” Yet the propping up of Gillard has now been followed by Kevin Rudd’s PNG solution. Similarly, the Greens’ willingness to draw a moral line between political and economic migration has led them to give ground to the other kind of anti-immigration politics Australia is famous for.
Rudd’s audacious move clarifies things, however. Nobody who is serious about ending the use of refugees as political scapegoats should have any hesitation in voting for the Greens ahead of Labor this year. But neither should they presume that voting for the Greens, or even getting them into parliament in decent numbers, settles the question. The last three years is proof of the limits of that strategy, of propping up a political system that delivers ever more appalling abuse of some of the most desperate people on the planet. Developing an alternative, it should now be obvious, will have to primarily happen outside the ALP and against the state rather than within either.
The absence of that kind of alternative on a sufficient scale in today’s Australia means that we have not yet finished plumbing the depths.
Thanks to Liz Humphrys for her comments and suggestions.