The two big parties have long considered refugees’ rights forfeit. This election year has been a time of unprecedented sacrifice of refugees, as each “policy” idea from Labor and the Liberals becomes more extreme than the last.
After signing up Papua New Guinea and Nauru to bogus resettlement deals, PM Kevin Rudd has most recently sent families to Nauru and continues to oversee legally dubious deportations.
Liberal leader Tony Abbott has said he will deport refugees already in Australian detention and buy boats from Indonesian fishers to prevent them being used for passage by refugees. A return to John Howard-era temporary protection visas and sending in the navy to stop asylum boats are also possibilities.
Most recently, Abbott has said he would trash the review process for refugees held in detention because of a negative clearance from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation — a practice recently found to be a violation of human rights by the United Nations.
Both parties believe stirring up racism and ignorant fear against the perceived “refugee problem” is a strong platform from which to push their conservative, corporate-driven agendas.
Whether it involves fanning fear of migration to deflect anger over social spending cuts or using asylum-seeker myths to drive divisions between voters, the two big parties rely on racism to stay in power.
Neither Labor nor the Coalition speak for the majority of Australians — not single parents or blue-collar workers, mortgage owners or university students, retirees or the unemployed. They definitely do not speak for the poor or marginalised.
But capitalist democracy still requires the big parties to play a part to win votes. So while the Labor government pushes policies that have created a broad social crisis and the Coalition will force Australians into even harsher economic conditions, they need a scapegoat to blame for the hardship created by a profits-first economy.
In Australia, racial prejudice is the fastest and easiest way to turn attention from the fact that the government always puts big business before everything else.
In a bid to understand this, many people believe either that Australians are racist because of government and media rhetoric or that the government's rhetoric is racist because they pander to the prejudice inherent in the Australian population. Neither of these views tells the full story, however, as Australia's racism is actually far more deeply rooted.
These roots go back to the dispossession of Aboriginal people from the outset of British colonisation. Hatred and fear against Aboriginal people were stirred up against the original owners, so that the huge wealth made from the continent's natural resources could be excusably stolen by pastorialists — Australia's first capitalists — and now the mining corporations.
This demonisation of Aboriginal people was extended over time to a hatred of non-Europeans generally, and has been aimed at groups of new migrants as they settled.
This has conditioned many Australians into a reflexive “us or them” mindset, and created the race card that politicians and big business love to play.
Governments play the race card because it buys into the fears of many Australians already struggling under economic pressures — allowing them to point the finger at something other than the real culprits of their problems, usually the government and its corporate rulers.
It is much easier to let stressed families decide that asylum seekers are to blame for their own financial difficulties than to admit that the gap between the rich and poor is widening. It is easier to let frightened suburb-dwellers blame migrants for failing infrastructure and housing problems than to confront the destructive nature of short-term capitalist growth.
If pensioners believe they cannot access adequate health care because refugees get all the help, they won't wonder if it is actually because of the government's relentless push to privatise public services and cut costs. If job-seeking youths resent new arrivals for taking “all the jobs”, then bosses get a free pass to continue cutting wages, costs and staff.
The government does not want to challenge big business, because big businesses are their genuine allies. Racism fosters the idea that not only is the plight refugees face their own fault, but they are also responsible for the social ills that can and should be bringing down the government.
In this election, both big parties are using refugees to divide, confuse and frighten people into choosing their side over the other party's equally narrow and unfair agenda. This has created untold suffering for refugees and asylum seekers, and has obscured and driven out voices calling for more humane and compassionate policies.
Even though many Australians would struggle to imagine the horror of war in Afghanistan or genocide in Sri Lanka, there are real grounds for common cause. Any Australian parent has more in common with an Afghan man trying to bring his family to safety in Australia.
We have more in common with people who desire only refuge and security than with an Australian billionaire who desires ever more bloated profits and growth.
These are the grounds for building solidarity to fight the capitalist parties and take away their race card.