Parliament or the streets?

Sue Bolton pictured at a refugee rights rally.

At the national refugee protest in Canberra on November 18, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young concluded her speech by saying her first involvement in politics was through the refugee movement and that she used to come to rallies like this, until she realised that it was more important to change the minds of the people inside parliament, so she stood for parliament instead.

I’ve heard Hanson-Young and Greens candidates make similar statements previously.

I think such statements need to be challenged.

Just one or two or even 10 Greens or progressive people elected to parliament won’t necessarily change the minds of other politicians.

Some of the politicians in the major parties know that what their parties are doing to refugees and asylum seekers is wrong and inhumane, but they are loyal to parties that whip up hatred towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Humane refugee policies won’t be won just by hoping to change the minds of some politicians. The big parties have to be forced to abandon their inhumane and racist policies through political pressure from a mass movement of opposition.

The politicians may not change their mind, but they can be forced to abandon their policies. In the 1960s, then-Labor leader Gough Whitlam supported the Vietnam War. The mass movement against the war became so big that the Labor Party was forced to change its policy, resulting in the Whitlam-led government being elected on a platform of opposition to the war.

Other progressive reforms, especially workers’ rights, and rights for Aboriginal and women’s services have also been won in similar ways. While a government might have introduced laws to guarantee certain reforms, there is no way those reforms would have been introduced without strong grassroots movements for rights.

In my year as a Moreland councillor in Melbourne, I’ve witnessed that residents getting organised and building campaigns has far more impact than any discussions among councillors.

Hanson-Young won’t be able to change the minds of other politicians, but a mass grassroots movement in support of refugees and asylum seekers can force the politicians to back down from their cruel policies.