Labor needs to change policy on refugees

March 19, 2021
Home to Bilo campaigners. Photo: Rural Australians for Refugees

Labor’s immigration spokesperson Kristina Keneally was one of the prominent supporters of the Tamil family from Biloela, Queensland, at the March 5 protests marking three years since they were taken from their home at dawn.

Priya, Nades and their children have been detained on Christmas Island at a cost of $6 million; they are the only family being treated this way. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions calling for their release and the Biloela community has repeatedly called for them to be returned to their community.

Keneally told the Sydney rally that “only three people in Australia are unmoved: Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke”.

She is not a new supporter of the family, and she has been roasted by the Murdoch media because of it.

However, the striking thing about Keneally’s outspokenness about the right of this family to be released is that it is particular to them.

The Labor Party is only prepared to highlight the worst excesses of the Peter Dutton-Scott Morrison war on refugees because they are as complicit as the Coalition.

Labor legislated the policy of mandatory detention when Paul Keating was prime minister. Julia Gillard’s government reintroduced offshore detention in 2012.

When Kevin Rudd began his second stint as prime minister he made the bellicose declaration that no refugees who arrive by boat would ever be permanently settled in Australia.

Mandatory detention, boat turn-backs and the lack of permanent protection — all features of Australian refugee policy — fundamentally deny basic human rights. They represent a gutting of the United Nations Refugee Convention, also known as the “rule of law”.

Labor supports them all.

While it is true that Labor has a formal policy against Temporary Protection Visas, they still reject offering permanent protection in Australia to any refugee sent to Manus or Nauru since 2013.

Labor and Coalition governments calculate that they will get away with their cruel policies since refugees only make up a small minority of the population.

But we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we let them get away with that.

First, you cannot expect justice for yourself if you’re not prepared to support justice for other people. Human rights apply to everybody or else they’re not “rights”, they are privileges.

From this stand point, defending refugee rights is about defending human rights for the entire population.

Secondly, the function of anti-refugee policies in Australia is to act as cover for neoliberal attacks on the broader population.

Governments scapegoat refugees while cutting public services, giving tax cuts to the rich, eroding workers’ rights and avoiding mandating anti-sexual assault laws.

Politics could not have moved so far to the right over the past 20 years if the Labor Party had consistently defended a humane and just refugee policy. This is true even if they had lost elections on the issue.

In fact, had Labor defended such a policy alongside a platform of real social democratic reform, they would have been more likely to win more of the elections they lost.

One may fairly protest that it is not in Labor’s nature — a thoroughly capitalist party — to champion genuine reform.

However, the truth remains that Labor, like the Coalition, can be pressured by popular campaigns to adopt progressive policies; and we’d all be better off if Labor was forced to adopt better refugee policies.

The fact that Keneally is so keen to be seen supporting the Biloela family is testament to the success of grassroots refugee rights campaigns across the country calling for the release the Medevac refugees from hotel detention, as well as the #HomeToBilo campaign, #GameOver: Get People to Safety.

However, as Keneally said, even former PM Tony Abbott has written to the immigration minister asking for the Tamil family to be released.

Labor needs to go further and end its support for mandatory detention and boat turn-backs.

For its gesture to the Biloela family to have any real meaning, Labor needs to restore permanent protection for all refugees who come to Australia.

[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance and is active in the refugee rights movement in Brisbane.]

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