Monday 23 July 2012

Asylum Seekers: The sad, short, history of Labor’s deviation from a ‘White Australia” mentality.

First published in Recorder, the newsletter of the Melbourne Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History

Tony Harris

The recent attacks on the Greens by notable Labor Party figures over the refusal of the Greens to compromise over offshore processing of asylum seekers represents a new low for the Labor Party. The attacks by assorted Labor right-wingers are predictable, But most disappointing was Labor Left Senator Doug Cameron’s criticism, outrageously accusing the Greens of being responsible for asylum seekers dying because of their “purist approach”. This ignores the fact that Greens policy is similar to that of refugee organisations – such as the highly-regarded,  Melbourne-based, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. On ABC News 24, its CEO, Kon Karapangiotidis described the Labor and Coalition approach to the debate as “evil”. The sad truth is that when it comes to “purity” you couldn’t get anything more pure than Labor’s adherence for most of its long history, to a White Australia mentality.

Labor departed from this mentality for a relatively brief period from around the mid 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s. Its reversion to a white Australia mentality is a kind of White Australia Plus, embedded in an “acceptable” form of multiculturalism with strict borders. In terms of immigration and refugees, Labor has embraced John Howard’s 2001 barrier: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

The ALP freed itself of its White Australia mentality in the context of the emerging social movements from the mid 1960s. This mentality was of course never just about a discriminatory immigration policy but also embraced paternalism towards, and marginalisation of, Aboriginal Australians. It was also a mentality reinforced by our military alliance with the United States, which effectively originated in the 1908 visit of the Great White Fleet. It has been an alliance historically built around racial fear. The Vietnam antiwar movement challenged this.

Labor formally abandoned its discriminatory immigration policy on the eve of the election of the Whitlam Government. That government followed through with the abolition of discrimination in assessing immigrant applications and then underpinned it with the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. This is arguably the most important piece of legislation to ever pass the federal parliament, also ending legal discrimination against Aboriginal people, laying the foundation for the later High Court Mabo decision, overturning the White Australia foundations of the Australian Commonwealth, and establishing human rights norms in accordance with international conventions. The Whitlam government backed this up with proposed NT Aboriginal Land Rights legislation, enacted by the Fraser Liberal Government. And while Whitlam remained a supporter of the alliance with the US it was an alliance in flux, with a critical Labor Left on the case.

The road back to White Australia in immigration began at the start of the 1990s with a new focus on asylum seekers. With a large influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, Labor introduced mandatory detention amendments to the Migration Act, laying the foundation of a system that would underpin both Liberal and Labor asylum seeker policy. While Labor, on its re-election in 2007, removed some of the more egregious elements of the Howard system, such as Temporary Protection Visas, the system of “punishing’ asylum seeker boat arrivals by extensive detention, and by “holding back” on intervening to intercept boats until absolutely necessary, essentially continues.

Labor’s march back to a White Australia mentality was also reflected in Aboriginal affairs. In 1986, the Hawke Labor Government buckled under pressure from West Australian Labor Premier, Brian Burke, and backed off national land rights legislation. The Mabo High Court decision was an important forward step for Aboriginal people but it, and the subsequent Native Title legislation, was as much, if not more, about confirming white dispossession, and calming white fears. However Labor under Keating and Rudd made important symbolic statements of reconciliation.

It was also the Hawke Government, which restored the alliance with the US to prominence, signing on to the 1990/91 Gulf War and the shift in the racial fears underpinning it to the Middle East. Since 9/11 these fears have widened to include south Asia though there has been a recently re-embraced a fear of China. The historical existential anxieties of these two colonial settler societies, both established by acts of ethnic cleansing, remain at the core of the alliance and reinforce the White Australia mentality.

And so the final week of the recent parliamentary session was a sorry affair, not because of the Greens principled stand in favour of ready solution to the problem – by embracing and facilitating our international responsibilities, with the rapid and safe relocation of asylum seekers to the Australian mainland - but because of Labor’s refusal to abandon a mentality which sees it as important to resist and punish asylum seekers seeking to come to this country by boat. And of course this was the same week that the Government, with coalition support, extended the colonial and paternalistic Northern Territory Intervention through its Stronger Futures legislation, in the face of widespread opposition from Aboriginal groups and communities.

Throughout its history, the ALP had a fractious relationship to its dominant White Australia mentality, challenged at different points by Labor, and labour movement, socialists and internationalists, and ultimately influenced by the evolution of post-WWII migration. Labor can claim some achievements in the area of multiculturalism and indigenous affairs. And in NSW, Labor for Refugees, an organisation which played a major role in campaigning against the Howard Government on asylum seekers, has written to NSW ALP General Secretary, Sam Dastyari, expressing its disgust at the attacks on the Greens and pointing out that the Greens approach is consistent with ALP policy. We can only hope other voices will be raised inside the ALP and the labour movement and that hopefully Labor will return to the progressive path it set out on in the 1970s.

Thursday 12 July 2012

The Greens – and their better selves

Post by Hall Greenland
Port Jackson Greens, NSW.

There can be no doubting the moral and political courage of the federal Greens MPs after their magnificant stand on refugees two weeks ago and their resistance to unrelenting mass-media hysteria ever since. So it appears to be a surprise that these same MPs led such a determined charge to drop the inheritance tax from the party platform at the Greens’ National Policy Conference in Adelaide last weekend.

The “party room” (as the federal MPs are called) moved for the deletion of the plank in an abbreviated debate – about ten minutes – in which Bob Brown seized the mike to spell out the reason for the elimination: it was electoral poison and costing us one or two percent of the vote. That was it. Truly. (Incidentally, the policy in question was a commitment to an inheritance tax on estates above $5m, with family home, family farm, small business and bequests to spouses excluded.)

The only votes cast against the dropping of the tax came from the entire NSW delgation. The move was carried 65-12 - an unrepresentative majority, aproblem I will return to.

On the face of it, the move – and the arguments used to ditch the policy - appear to confirm the Tietze-Humphrys thesis that the federal Greens leadership, not to mention the Greens membership as a whole, are veering to the right, driven by electoralism and an attachment to neoliberalism. They are, to coin a phrase, “neoliberals on bikes”.   

A few hours earlier in a special plenary session called to farewell Bob Brown, both he and his successor, Senator Christine Milne, laid out the strategy of an alliance with what might be dubbed “the green bourgeoisie”, but which is usually referred to as Green businesses. The thinking is that there are firms out there with a real interest in an ecologically sustainable economy and that they can be split away from the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group to form a capitalist base for the Greens. As one of the leaders said – I think it was Bob Brown – this new alliance will also “afford us new funding opportunities”.

In that context, the dropping of the inheritance tax – and much else in the new economic platform – makes sense. The Greens don’t want to be scaring off those new Green allies. The other leg of the new party-room electoral strategy is to woo regional and rural Australia, which appears to be unobjectionable at this stage.

What this two-pronged strategy leaves out – and this is a silly oversight for an electoral strategy – is those areas where there are most votes: the western suburbs of the great cities. It is here that the Greens should be devoting any new energy we have, especially if we are to fulfil our dream of a dynamic mass presence leading on to the great transformation of existing society.

But it is unlikely the Greens can win the working class of the western suburbs if they are going to abandon tax strategies that attack great inequalities of wealth. Ironically, no sooner had the Greens abandoned the inheritance tax, than Labor MP and academic Andrew Leigh, published his latest research into income and wealth distribution in Australia. And sure enough, things are becoming more unequal.

The removal of this tax also reflected the very point of the rewriting of the Greens policy platform that is taking place this year: to pare it down and to remove as many concrete commitments as possible. According to one member who did a word count, in 2009 the Greens’ platform was 40% the length of the Labor Party’s, but the new draft platform published earlier this year was less than 20%.  

This savage pruning was the work of the party room’s staffers who outnumber national office staff by a ration of 20:1. In Adelaide – the venue for the first of the two policy conferences being held this year – there was some pushing back and NSW was not alone in advocating restoring and adding material. It is difficult to judge what the results of this push-back have been as policies were amended and finalised in workshops and final drafts are not yet available.

Despite the loss of the inheritance tax, most of the NSW delegates believe that delegates from other states (and the party room) are still interested in a more egalitarian distribution of income and wealth, and that it is just a matter of finding the right mix of policies and they will swing behind it. One or two of the NSW delegates were more pessimistic, although they undoubtedly hope the optimists (or illusionists) are right.

The optimists are right that the picture remains mixed. For instance, the industrial relations policy adopted at the conference – based on informal reports - upholds the right to strike and pattern bargaining, supports the lifting of restrictions on solidarity industrial action, calls for portable long-service leave and a shorter working week, a better deal for apprentices and insists on the right of workers to have a voice in setting their own hours and work arrangements in order to get a better life-work balance. The economics policy also calls for – thanks to the NSW delegation’s advocacy - democratic control of the economy and public ownership of natural monopolies and essential public services. How much of this has been diluted and contradicted by illusions about markets, corporations and tax reforms, that have also been added, is the subject for another analysis.

Switching to other matters, a major disappointment of the policy conference was the initiative to drop from the platform any reference to particular countries (like Tibet, Palestine, East Timor and West Papua) and instead develop specific off-platform resolutions on these matters. This issue will be further thrashed out at the November policy conference but it is likely that NSW will be the one dissenting state.

Which brings me to the unrepresentative nature of the conference. Under the formula for delegates what we get at Greens national conferences is more or less equal numbers from each of the states. It’s more Senate than House of Representatives. So NSW, with over 30% of members, has approximately 15% of delegates. Victoria is in the same position.    

A more representative set-up – and one that would involve the members – is to have local groups send delegates (the numbers of delegates from each group to be based on their membership) directly to the conference. This probably won’t fly nationally, but not to worry too much; it is the basis of NSW conferences which are now called upon to take the lead in policy development.

Finally, what was in many ways the saddest session of the conference, was the discussion introduced by Christine Milne about the need to kick-start climate change activism. Despite the triumphalism about the introduction of the “price on carbon” package, Senator Milne acknowledged that the community movement was still needed if the derisory target of a 5% reduction in greenhouse gases was to be increased. Regrettably, however, the steam has gone out of the extraparliamentary movement.  

Whether it has occurred to her, or anyone else in the party room, that over-selling the victory of a carbon tax, and associated measures, may have contributed to the demobilisation, was hard to tell. Perhaps in the early hours of the morning some of the federal MPs awake and realise that the huge tasks confronting us will only be solved by policy boldness and the sort of courage the asylum-seeker debate has revealed they possess.