What's behind government refugee bashing?

Issue 

Australian governments, both Liberal and Labor, have had a policy of treating refugees as enemies for at least 20 years. Probably the most infamous occasion was the Coalition's November 2001 federal election victory, where the major parties adopted a joint policy of turning back 438 refugees who had been saved from drowning by the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa.

The alarmist, racist rhetoric used by then-prime minister John Howard, included claims — later shown to be false — that refugees had thrown children overboard, turned a probable defeat for the Liberals into a shameful victory.

In late 2009, ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd continued Howard's policy by refusing to accept 255 Tamil refugees languishing in the Indonesian port of Merak. The Australian government made a deal with the Indonesia government to intercept the refugees' boat before it entered Australian waters.

Rudd's "tough" approach to asylum seekers forms part of the unofficial lead-up to the 2010 federal election. In this way, Rudd hopes to make some electoral gains, no matter the human cost.

A Nielsen poll published in the November 9 Sydney Morning Herald showed 44% of 1400 voters polled thought the federal Labor government's refugee policy — which imprisoned refugees, turned back boats in dangerous waters and funded detention of asylum seekers in transit countries — was too soft.

The poll also said: "37% thought it about right and 13% believed it too harsh."

It appeared to show 81% of respondents were against refugees. The asylum seekers that travel to Australia by boat are misunderstood, demonised and feared.

It is undeniable there are sections of the Australian population capable of outright racial hatred and vilification. Successive Australian governments have encouraged these racist attitudes; setting refugees up is an easy target.

But at times, a large proportion of Australia's population have also shown they will mobilise to attack racist ideas and prejudice. In the face of a media industry that parrots government lies, the progressive sectors need encouragement — people need to know that others think like they do.

In 2002, refugees locked up in the infamously inhumane Woomera detention centre were so desperate they starved and harmed themselves. Refugee rights activists travelled from around Australia to the remote desert prison camp to protest and demand the Howard government free the refugees.

Spontaneously, the detention centre's fence was brought down and dozens of refugees escaped. When this protest appeared on national TV, it dramatised the plight of the refugees and added to public sympathy.

The refugee rights campaign built itself up over many years. This sustained campaign convinced a majority of the population Howard was wrong and his refugee policy was racist. The movement showed, time and again, point by point, what was wrong with the arguments put forward by the government and its supporters.

The resulting swing in public opinion put enough pressure on Howard that eventually the Coalition government moved detention centres offshore, as part of its infamous "Pacific solution". In opposition, the ALP tried to tap into the pro-refugee sentiment and promised it would respect the human rights of refugees.

But in power, Rudd has entered a bidding war with the Coalition on who can continue Howard's policies most faithfully. Many who supported the refugee rights campaign against Howard, who understood the depth of the lies perpetrated by the Liberals, expected the ALP to be different.

At a recent community cabinet meeting in Bathurst, Rudd was questioned by a journalism student about his government's treatment of asylum seekers, said ABC radio's AM on November 10.

Elysha Hickey asked Rudd: "Why don't you take the opportunity to completely change the discourse, the way that Australians think about asylum seekers and stop this 'around in circles' business and just stop this fear mongering?"

Asylum seekers are not a threat to anyone in Australia. Every year, about 50,000 people, mostly from Europe or the US, illegally overstay their tourist or work visas. No public outcry results from this.

But the hysteria is focussed on the few hundred desperate refugees who arrive by boat, who under international law are not in the slightest sense "illegal".

The most important reason why Liberal and Labor governments demonise asylum seekers is because it's useful. First, they know that racist fearmongering can win votes. But more fundamentally, racism is useful for the ruling elites because it prevents people from considering the real problems they face.

The entire capitalist system relies on the rich getting richer, but it also relies on the oppressed majority believing the system helps them too.

Racism plays an important part in the system. It serves to justify the oppression and discrimination the system creates and divides working people from one another. Racist ideas help to justify Australia's involvement in imperialist wars overseas and validate the exploitation of migrants as cheap, profitable labour.

Racism is rooted in the entire history of the Australian nation-state. White, capitalist Australia was created through the dispossession, murder and exploitation of Indigenous people.

Aboriginal people were driven off their land, forced to work for rations, and even, in the early days, murdered in large numbers. The outright theft of indigenous land laid the basis for the immense wealth of Australian capitalism today. The white majority largely accepted this outrage because they were convinced of the racial inferiority of Aboriginal people.

For decades, Australia's racist White Australia Policy helped reinforce an identification by white workers with their white bosses.

Today's demonisation of refugees feeds directly into this. It creates a false sense of "us" against "them". In reality, we have more in common with refugees than we do the government that demonises them.

Many workers of rich imperialist countries, like Australia, get relative privileges from this system. The super-profits made from the exploitation of Third World countries allows for relatively higher living standards in the First World.

But the politics of racism helps to undermine basic values of human solidarity and serves to deflect attention away from government attacks on all workers living conditions, wages and civil liberties.

More than that, because racism turns working people against each other, it actually weakens the struggles of working-class people to improve their living and working conditions.

By diverting blame for unemployment, and deteriorating social services and wages and conditions to racial minorities, the corporate elite can get away with more.

But past anti-racist movements have shown that racism can be pushed back. The anti-racist movements of the 1960s and '70s eventually led to 400,000 people walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000 in favour of reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

Racism is part of capitalism's DNA. It won't be overcome completely until the irrational social system that breeds it is replaced. But progressive movements can change public opinion and bring about social change.

In essence, the Labor government's refugee policy is just as inhumane and racist as the Coalition's. Therefore, the refugee rights movement must continue to fight, like under Howard, to generate the same outrage and reject the racism readily used by a system that does not act in our interests.