BY PAT BREWER
CANBERRA — Con Sciacca, the Labor Party's federal shadow minister for immigration, addressed the question "Is Australia's refugee policy racist?" at a public meeting organised by Racial Respect on August 9 at the Canberra Workers Club. Sciacca rejected claims contained in Liberal Party propaganda that Labor was "soft on illegal immigrants". He stated that a Labor government would restore fairness and humanitarianism as the basis of refugee policy.
In reality, what Sciacca outlined was a reaffirmation of the hard-line stance on asylum seekers and refugees introduced by the federal Labor government in 1989.
Under its "humanitarian and fair" policy, a Labor government will:
- not "open the doors" to refugees, even though there is no "flood" of boat people;
- set up an independent judicial inquiry into the running of detention centres, with full legal protection of witnesses;
- maintain the annual limit on refugee and humanitarian intake at 12,000 which has remained unchanged for the past 10 years;
- continue a policy mandatory detention but with a "sensitive" approach, in which "low risk" people — women, children and frail elderly people — would be held in"community located" detention centres;
- increase resources to reduce the time it takes for asylum seekers' claims for refugee status to be examined; and
- maintain the two-tier visa system which discriminates against refugees on the basis on their method of entry and application.
Sciacca said that Labor supports the right of asylum seekers to have full access to the process of judicial review if their claim is initially rejected. Labor will continue to oppose the federal government's push to "streamline" the appeals process.
Labor will maintain a "bipartisan" approach on the issue of refugees, Sciacca said, but would like to de-politicise the issue. He accused the Coalition of attempting to win One Nation votes by inflaming the issue.
The audience of around 200 attempted to explore the ambiguities of Labor's approach. When a participant pointed out that more than 90% of Iraqi and Afghani asylum seekers were recognised as genuine refugees, Sciacca challenged this with the claim the Afghan community in Australia questioned the legitimacy of some refugees.
A researcher from the Australian Defence Force Academy in the audience explained that this was probably because the federal government argued that the "illegal" boat people were taking the places of refugees who apply for entry offshore. He noted that this divide and rule policy fuelled tensions between the Afghan and Pakistani communities. Sciacca remained silent on whether this situation would be addressed under a Labor government.
Many forum participants pointed out that mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals was generating racism in the community against migrants and their Australian-born children.
In response, Sciacca frankly stated that, because the political mood on the issue of immigration has shifted to the right, Labor has to accommodate to this shift. The goal of winning government is too important to be undermined by humanitarian concerns, or international treaty obligations not to treat asylum seekers as criminals.
Sciacca said that he knew that federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock, and his refugee policy, was not racist. He added that he would be "very disturbed if such policies were seen as racist". The government, he said, was just cumbersome and unfair in the way it developed and implemented the policy.
There was a strong level of interest in a stall set up by the Refugee Action Committee outside the meeting. Many donations and pledges to support the escaped detainees were received.