Socialist Alliance stands up for refugees

October 24, 2001


This federal election reeks of a punitive, vicious and even racist campaign against refugees — but there is at least one breath of fresh air. While scarcely able to match the anti-refugee noise of Liberal and Labor, the Socialist Alliance is standing up for refugee rights and basic humanitarian principles.

Lisa Macdonald, Socialist Alliance's candidate in the western Sydney seat of Reid, which has a large migrant population, summed up the alliance's attitude to immigration.

"Australia is a wealthy country with enormous resources and a tiny population", Macdonald explained. "The Socialist Alliance advocates the removal of all restrictive and discriminatory barriers to immigration, and that includes strict quotas. We should be actively resettling much larger numbers of those most in need, and we should be welcoming all asylum seekers who come here."

"Over a 10 year period, in the 1970s and 1980s, Australia resettled 170,000 Vietnamese refugees. We should do the same for Afghan refugees today."

Macdonald explains that if Australia set a positive example, it could put enormous moral pressure on all wealthy governments, and "give strength and confidence to refugee support movements within those countries to pressure their governments to follow suit".

The size of Australia's immigration intake isn't the only thing which makes the Socialist Alliance stand out on the issue.

Karen Fletcher, the alliance's Senate candidate for Queensland, says "The Socialist Alliance rejects the emphasis put on skilled migration, which all parties from One Nation to the Greens agree on to some degree. A migrant doesn't need to have a university degree to be able to contribute productively to society. Taking in unskilled migrants is not a 'drain' on our society, and it wasn't a requirement for the early waves of migration to Australia.

"Putting a skills requirement on migration places is poaching skilled people from other countries", Fletcher explained. "Australia has a moral obligation to take in unskilled migrants and provide them with access to education and training, given that many billions of people have no access to this in their home countries."

Ian Rintoul, Senate candidate for New South Wales, is also critical of the balance of Australia's immigration intake, noting that immigration minister Philip Ruddock "attacks asylum seekers for using people smugglers, but those that are really rich can effectively buy a business visa. Family visas have been cut back in favour of business migrants, so there is now a 40 year waiting list to bring aged parents to join their families in Australia."

"The government suggests that it has a 'balanced' immigration program", Rintoul continued, "but the annual humanitarian intake has been quite arbitrarily reduced from 20,000 in the 1980s to 12,000. This had nothing to do with a fragile ecosystem or restricted water resources. Sydney coped with a population increase of hundreds of thousands during the Olympics without any threat to the ecosystem or economic infrastructure. The real threat to the environment comes from greedy development and polluting industries, not population."

Rintoul argues that a major factor in shaping public opinion is the fact that "Labor leaders like Beazley and [immigration spokesperson Con] Sciacca have so totally supported the government, supporting the Liberals' legislation and the use of the navy against the refugees. Without the government being openly challenged people are inclined to believe what Howard and Ruddock are saying."

Jorge Jorquera, Socialist Alliance candidate for the western Melbourne seat of Gellibrand, agrees: "Many people only support the government reluctantly, because they see no alternative. What's more, there are many people who oppose the government's scapegoating of asylum seekers, but their opposition has few avenues for expression. I think there is greater support and sympathy for asylum seekers among a certain layer of people than in decades, reflecting a polarisation at either end of the debate."

"Public opinion is sometimes a fragile thing", adds Rintoul. "Even a little bit of resistance goes a long way. People know that Howard is a liar on so many things, it doesn't necessarily take too much for them to believe that he lies about refugees too. But the contradictions and the lies have to be exposed."

Jorquera believes "the activity and protest of asylum seekers themselves" has been the main reason why there has been growing support for refugee rights, but adds that "the solid and consistent organising, protest marches, public meetings, pickets of Ruddock's meetings have also helped to swing the debate and challenge people's assumptions".

"The campaign for refugee rights isn't going to stop with the election", Rintoul adds. "Even if we can get rid of the Liberals, we will have a Labor government with policies no different from Ruddock's. It is the resistance of the refugees and the public demonstrations that have pushed the issue of asylum seekers into the political mainstream."

Macdonald agrees that "Many of our written policies are similar to those of the Greens and Democrats".

But, she adds, "What differentiates us is the involvement of candidates and members in campaigning to shift public opinion. Good policies are one thing, but unless you can move people's views by generating debates and discussions within communities, while demonstrating that an increasing number of people disagree with the government's approach, then those good policies are useless."

"Neither the Greens nor the Democrats put a priority on building grassroots movements. Certainly, some Greens members are involved in grassroots campaigning, but it's not the party's strategy for change. It's an adjunct to the main game of getting more good people into parliament. Similarly, the Democrats have not been active in any of the refugee rights action groups or protests, although they have been happy to provide speakers at rallies."

Rintoul agrees: "The Democrats may have a better position on paper and Andrew Bartlett has been a public critic of the government over the issue of refugees, but it is not parliamentary debate that is going to change government policy. That will take even more demonstrations, building solidarity and union action to end mandatory detention of refugees and overturn the absurd policy of transporting asylum seekers to tiny Pacific islands."

"Imagine if Democrats Senators and Bob Brown had united to use their public profile and authority to call people out onto the streets to protest against the seven anti-refugee bills that went before the Senate in September. They see their role as confined to parliament, giving good speeches during debates, but fail to grasp the extent to which they, personally, could help to build the weight of the grassroots movement. That's the role a Socialist Alliance parliamentarian would play."

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