Last night I attended a Labor For Refugees event, hosted by the Refugee Action Committee at ANU. That there were over 100 people in attendance, an admirably showing for a mid-week forum. Yet I felt a great sense of disappointment. I fail to see how Labor for Refugees will effect positive change and am mortified by some of the very ugly messages heard.
First is the notion of compromise. I would summarise the policy position of the refugee movement as; onshore processing, permanent visas, replacing mandatory detention with community living, de-linking asylum seekers from the humanitarian program, as well as raising the number of humanitarian refugees Australia accepts. We are so far from this set of options. Therefore, its critical to find points of compromise to slowly begin the process of change.
I heard none of this. I asked a question about where the speakers thought there could be compromise and I didn’t receive a single straight response. I heard violent rhetoric about John Howard, Tony Abbott and Chris Bowen. I heard cliches about scare campaigns. But I didn’t heard compromise. Personally, I believe the longer term objective should be to raise the humanitarian program substantially while implementing a deep, broad regional framework. I didn’t feel there was much support for this in the room. I was even told these ‘solutions’ were promoted by the ALP in the immediate past because they simply didn’t know what else to do, inferring elected politicians don’t really care about boat drownings. How quickly we forget that the period of asylum policy under Malcolm Fraser was built on a bedrock of regional cooperation. Boats were not an optimal occurrence, even in 1982.
Instead of compromise, we heard other ideas. “Cut immigration to 100,000 and accept 100,000 refugees”, “The Houston Review was a load of baloney”, “Regional solutions are just about stopping the boats, a distraction”. I should of been disgusted and angry, but instead I could only shake my head.
Further, there was a strong belief the Australian people have been hoodwinked by a wicked media and devilish politicians.
‘People have been manipulated by the stop the boats message’
This could not be further from the truth. Thankfully, one speaker rose above this and commented on the way the advocacy movement had a tendency for one way communication which limited the ability to reach the people who ought to be targeted. The comment, ‘our asylum debate takes the place of a real policy debate’ I believe to be far more accurate and was well said. Thank you Yvette Berry.
Perhaps most disappointing was the contempt for other migrants, expressed by both a speaker and a person asking a question. When you think the way to “win” this debate is to ask people to compare refugees vs. 457 visas vs. backpackers, you’ve already lost. Not only was this said, it was a “key fact”, something to lead the way forward in discussions with other people on asylum seekers. Just for good measure, we were told of the “wave of Chinese workers” about to descend on Australia. It was hard to believe I was in the 21st century.
Replacing the fear of one migrant with another is to enter a never ending abyss of hatred. Admittedly, this sentiment was questioned. But it was a strong presence in the room and finds institutional support elsewhere in the refugee advocacy movement.
Finally, many of the speakers and audience members spoke of their optimism. I was told a turning point was coming, leading to significant social change. Given where we find ourselves as a nation on asylum policy combined with an intolerance to compromise (perhaps best epitomised by the Malaysia solution, opposed by both the current government and the Greens), I don’t understand this sense of optimism. Rallies and speeches do not a movement make.
It is undoubtedly true it is easier to demonise the vulnerable yet this is not an excuse to ignore a way forward. There is no tipping point in this debate. There is only a long, hard road to change.