The demonising of asylum seekers is an elaborate exercise in racist scapegoating designed to distract Australians from the real causes of anxiety and insecurity in their lives. We need to be absolutely uncompromising in our resistance to this toxic agenda.
National Director of Welcome to Australia and ALP member Brad Chilcott created a stir when he suggested in an opinion piece that supporters of refugee rights in the Labor Party should drop their opposition to offshore processing and just accept that a majority of Australians will never support asylum seekers taking the "ocean route" to Australia.
According to this argument, we need to concede to the Abbott government's latest assault on refugees and international law to neutralise the ability of the Liberals to wedge Labor on the issue. Supposedly we can then focus on a more humane offshore detention and processing regime.
Soon after Chilcott’s opinion piece, reports circulated that Labor's left faction was unable to even arrive at a position on asylum seeker boat turnbacks. Does this mean they've abandoned the fight against mandatory detention and offshore processing?
Experience shows that we will never be able to neutralise the fear-mongering about refugees by accommodating to it. The opposite is true. In 2013, Kevin Rudd shifted the ALP to the right of the Liberals by reinstating offshore processing and pledging that no one who arrived by boat would ever be settled in Australia. Some of us imagined that things were as bad as they could get.
Abbott proved us wrong, resorting to refugee boat “turnbacks” or piracy on the high seas, even delivering asylum seekers from Sri Lanka directly back to their tormentors without even pretending to properly assess their claims. Does anyone seriously think if Labor rolls over on boat turnbacks that Abbott will not find a way to inflict more cruelty on refugees or step up his attacks on some other poor scapegoat?
Abbott will be able to wedge Labor on the issue as long as Labor refuses to challenge the myths on which the whole policy is founded.
Seeking asylum is not illegal. Arriving by boat is not illegal. Turnbacks are a breach of our treaty obligations. The vast majority of asylum seekers are genuine refugees. Mandatory detention is an expensive piece of political theatre that serves no purpose. Refugees do not increase the risk of terrorism. Some refugees are fleeing repressive regimes that Australia has supported or conflicts that it has inflamed. When did you last hear a federal Labor leader state these simple facts?
The only way to defeat this rotten scapegoating is by confronting it, naming and shaming it for what it is. This requires the confidence of our ideas, confidence that the vast majority of Australians are not irredeemable racists, but are good people who will come to a fair conclusion when presented with the facts. We should have confidence that we can win this debate, even if we start as a minority.
This also means defending the right of people to make their first claim for asylum in Australia regardless of what route they've taken to get here. It is only in this wealthy and predominantly white country — "girt by sea" — where people cling to the idea that the first claim must be made elsewhere, even if it means people languish in miserable conditions until we are ready to allow a few in.
This has no basis in law and reeks of colonial superiority, with roots in the fear of the "yellow peril". It legitimises the very racism underlying the whole cooked-up anti-refugee fear campaign.
It also runs up against some practical contradictions. What about Sri Lankans who've come directly to Australia? We can't send them back to Indonesia or Malaysia because they didn't come via those places. Abbott's depraved "solution" is to equip the Sri Lankan Navy to prevent people escaping.
What about Rohinghyas who are denied shelter in neighbouring countries? Does blocking the "ocean route" to Australia do them any favours? The vile slogan "Fuck off we're full" might be crude racism, but far worse is the claim that deterring boat arrivals is about "saving lives at sea". This is a dishonest euphemism for "Fuck off and die somewhere else".
This is the danger with talk about "regional solutions". Of course we should cooperate to offer protection, process claims and organise resettlement. But in Australia this is understood to mean asylum seekers should be parked and processed elsewhere.
Which wealthy industrialised country in our region that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention would be best placed to host a regional processing facility? An honest answer to that question should be the starting point for the discussion.
Some have declined to join the Reclaim Australia counter-rallies saying that they do not want to give Reclaim oxygen. Sorry, but that horse has bolted. Twenty-five years of refugee bashing and vilifying Muslims has given the proto-fascists plenty of oxygen.
It was gut wrenching to see so many unions fall in behind Rudd's 2013 policy. Australian workers cannot afford a repeat of that terrible mistake. If and when recession comes to our shores the far right will grow in this country as it has in others, but what we do now will change the balance. We need our unions to confront the racist hype now to help squeeze Reclaim Australia and their ilk out of the picture.
The anti-refugee drum beat is a weapon of mass distraction. People who are sucked in to thinking that refugees or Muslims pose a serious threat to their wellbeing will be disarmed when Abbott and his gang comes after their rights and conditions.
The campaign to put an end to the politics of racist scapegoating is as vital to the struggle for the rights and dignity of working Australians as it is for those of refugees. We haven't a moment to lose.
[Sam Wainwright is a councillor at the City of Fremantle and Sue Bolton a Councillor at the City of Moreland. They are members of the Socialist Alliance and active with the Fremantle Refugee Rights Action Network and Refugee Action Collective Victoria respectively]