Ged Kearney is wrong: People make change, not Labor's numbers game

Protesters at a rally for refugees in Northcote on March 9 in the lead up to Ged Kearney's byelection victory.

What a month it's been for public expressions of racism.

We’ve had a nationally syndicated column by a well-known hatemonger calling immigrants “invaders”, followed up by a few cartoons in the same vein.

There was also the crude beat up about an “African gangs” crime wave in Melbourne, which even the Victorian police commissioner said did not exist.

Then a convicted neo-Nazi who jokes about raping women made a special appearance on Sky News.

It's kind of fitting then that all this should be topped off by a call from within federal parliament for a final solution to the scourge of Muslim immigrants.

Australia, what a place!

Of course, Katter’s Australian Party Senator Fraser Anning's talk of a “final solution” was too much for most, prompting a lot of bipartisan huffing and puffing about his speech. All this from the people who for 15 years have promoted relentless vilification and cruelty towards refugees.

It's important to emphasise that the anti-refugee policies have always rested on racism, albeit officially couched in language about “protecting our borders” or "saving lives at sea".

Furthermore, these policies have been a breeding ground for the more overt and mainstream expressions of racism that we see today.

The Australian Labor Party bears particular responsibility for this by capitulating to, and sometimes leading, the anti-refugee politics.

The day after Anning's speech, Labor and the Coalition combined to retrospectively excise Ashmore and Cartier Islands from Australia’s migration zone. Between 2002-13, refugees intercepted at sea were taken to Ashmore Reef as a way of denying them the ability to claim asylum in Australia, and instead transfer them to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The original legislation facilitating this ruse was recently ruled invalid, hence the frantic rush to patch over the illegal detention of 1600 people during this period.

Greens MPs quickly slammed this act of bastardry by Labor on social media, targeting the Labor “left” MPs who profess to care about refugee rights.

Victorian Labor MP Ged Kearney responded by complaining on a Facebook video that this amounted to “a particularly nasty and hateful campaign against me by the Greens”.

She then went on to make the truly extraordinary claim: “I could have crossed the floor ... but you know what, not one single thing would have changed for one single asylum seeker or refugee in this country.

“In fact the entire Labor Party could have crossed the floor over there and sat on that side of the house and nothing would have changed because the government has the numbers in the house.”

Nothing would have changed?

Just one Labor MP crossing the floor would have had a huge impact in breaking the bipartisan consensus and shifting public opinion. It would have contributed to the urgent work of confronting the racist cancer that is spreading and crippling the ability of working people to stand up and fight for their rights.

The single most useful thing any MP can do to resist the cruel, racist and destructive dynamic gripping Australian politics is to speak up and vote against it.

Instead, Kearney wants us to stick with her while she works at changing Labor from within. Crossing the floor, she warns, would have destroyed the goodwill she has built up with her colleagues and make it harder to win the party to a “more progressive platform”. 

That's been the strategy of the Labor “left” forever and it has failed time and again.

Delaying or moderating our demands and actions to curry favour with supposed friends inside Labor is a fatal mistake. It's the timeworn trap through which the system suffocates and kills off movements for change. 

Kearney is no doubt sincere in her concern for refugees and her belief that she is following the only viable strategy — but that's entirely irrelevant.

In fact, such sincerity makes her the unwitting sugar coating on a poisonous pill.

The real motor force of progressive change issocial movements, not Labor’s numbers game. When these movements are strong enough they can, and have, pulled Labor along in their wake.

A recent example was the campaign for marriage equality. In government, Labor resisted calls for change and only came on board in opposition after the marriage equality movement had done the hard work of winning the debate among millions of Australians.

The same was true of the struggle to stop our involvement in the Vietnam War and many other movements.

The people will lead and parliament will follow. That's how change happens.

The need for movements that seek to transform our society into a caring one that lives in peace with the planet is more urgent than ever.

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