Union support for Shorten on refugees: the road to defeat

June 6, 2018
Bill Shorten speaking at the Victorian ALP conference on May 28.

'Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.' — Slogan from a 1970s poster, author unknown.

The newly formed "Industrial Left" faction of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in Victoria combined with the right at the party's state conference on May 28 to block discussion about imposing a 90 day time limit on offshore detention.

It was very disappointing for refugee advocates to see unions give effective support to policies that condemn people who have committed no crime and are fleeing for their lives to be locked up indefinitely or forcibly returned into the hands of the regimes persecuting them. However, it was hardly a surprise.

In 2015, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten signalled his intention to fall in behind then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott on boat turnbacks. Faced with a motion at the ALP National Conference to prohibit this gross violation of international law, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) broke with the left to defeat it, contradicting both their own and the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) policy.

The pay-off for saving Shorten's image were promises that a future Labor government would wind back some anti-union laws and renegotiate elements of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement that unions feared would cost jobs in Australia.

Labor’s refugee policy

In the lead up to the 2016 federal election the MUA-backed candidate in the Labor pre-selection for the seat of Fremantle Chris Brown, a former workmate of mine, defeated Fremantle deputy mayor Josh Wilson. When quizzed about where he stood on refugee policy, Brown immediately declared on the front page of the Fremantle Herald his support for turnbacks.

In a bizarre twist Shorten then shafted the MUA, backing a decision of the ALP national executive to dump Brown, on the basis of two spent convictions dating back to 1985 when he was a teenager.

Wilson was then drafted in and we were treated to the painful spectacle of him standing next to Shorten in front of the Fremantle Town Hall publicly declaring his support for Labor's refugee policy. The irony was lost on no one.

Only three months earlier Wilson, who sat next to me in the council chamber, had enthusiastically supported the decision by the City of Fremantle to cut ties with business that profit from the offshore detention regime. He looked like he was being made to eat broken glass.

Having known, worked with and respected the contributions of both Brown and Wilson, the whole thing was pretty depressing. Many people go into Labor hoping to change it from within; mostly it changes them more than they change it.

Human rights

The problem with trading away other people's basic human rights for short-term gain is obvious. We cannot create a better world that way.

You can only think this is acceptable if you believe that some people's human rights are worth less than your own, which is why the policies of indefinite detention and turnbacks are inherently racist and why they must be condemned and resisted at every turn.

The infamous 2001 Tampa election, when then-Prime Minister John Howard intensified the vilification of refugees in order to distract voters from his pro-corporate agenda, is a long time ago. For anyone under the age of 35, kicking refugees has been a central feature of Australian politics their whole adult life.

Inevitably the fears, lies and myths have seeped into the consciousness of many working people, including some unionists and union leaders.

They have also infected the outlook of people who know it is wrong but do not think anything can be done about it. This is revealed in the response to criticism by CFMEU Victorian construction division secretary John Setka who supported the gag motion at the Victorian ALP conference.

Setka later tweeted: “Why the hell are Labor people prepared to use a STATE Labor conference against the election of a FEDERAL Labor government? Our best chance for a more humane approach and community is a Labor government and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

According to the June 2 Saturday Paper, Setka chatted with refugee rights activists handing out leaflets before the conference. I am sure Setka is genuine when he says he wants a better refugee policy, but I doubt he is so naive as to think there is a snowflake's chance in Hell of Shorten changing course after winning office having snuffed out the internal opposition.


It has nothing to do with the "best chance for a more humane approach" on refugees. Union leaders are desperate to ensure a Coalition government is not returned, but many cannot imagine it is possible for Labor to win unless it continues with the policy of detention and turnbacks.

In their minds, the rights of refugees just have to be sacrificed. It's a deeply pessimistic outlook that assumes the majority of Australian workers are too racist or stupid to believe anything else.

Thinking that politicians promote anti-refugee policies because "that is what Australian voters want" gets history back to front. Refugee bashing was created to distract people and to stop them from fighting back. The intended victims of the policy are Australian workers and the refugees themselves are the collateral damage. Racism is the bosses' ideology and fighting it should be core business for the union movement.

Having thrown refugees under a bus to save Shorten, there is every chance, once elected, he will repay the favour by doing the dirty on the unions anyway. Then what?

Is it really necessary to remind the union movement that when the shit hits the fan and we need to link arms on the picket line that the sort of people who will be the first to answer the call and stay the distance will be those who reject racism and support workers’ rights?

The motor force of progressive change is not cutting deals with insipid pro-corporate politicians like Shorten, but people power, whether on the streets or in our workplaces. That will be true regardless of who wins the next election.

We all want Malcolm Turnbull booted out, but caving in to a key plank of the anti-working class racist ideological agenda will not help our cause in the short or long term.

Racism has existed in the union movement from the day it was formed because of Australia's origins as a colonial-settler state. The country was founded on the violent dispossession of its indigenous population and establishment as a white outpost of the British Empire on Asia's doorstep.

Unable to imagine uniting with Asian and Pacific Islander workers, it was the unions that campaigned for the White Australia Policy. That was the deal the union movement of the day made with the employers: you keep the non-white workers out and we'll support Australian federation and the Empire.

Loyalty to Empire has been swapped for toadying up to the United States and the White Australia Policy for "stop the boats", but the essence remains the same.

It takes a powerful dose of colonial superiority to believe that, for some reason, refugees should under no circumstances make first landfall or their first claim for asylum on Australian shores, and that we are entitled to physically repel them in violation of international law.

All the more so considering Australia is partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the illegal invasion of Iraq and other military misadventures.

For many Australian workers it will take a leap of faith to reject the privileges of Empire and to see workers in poorer countries as their equals and necessary allies in struggle. 


Fortunately there is also the positive and inspiring tradition of internationalism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism to be found in the history of the Australian union movement. This includes the World War I anti-conscription campaign, the refusal by Port Kembla wharfies to load pig iron destined for the Japanese war machine, the early support given by the maritime unions to the Aboriginal land rights and Indonesian independence struggles, and support for the anti-Apartheid campaign.

The best way to honour that today is by rejecting "stop the boats".

The powerful example of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has declared his support for refugee rights, should also be our point of reference. Corbyn, because he understands and proposes real solutions to the causes of suffering in people’s lives, has the moral authority to confront the lies and racist attitudes towards refugees. It has not cost him support but strengthened his position.

There are lessons in this for the refugee rights and union movements. We will never decisively defeat anti-refugee policies until working people can connect to a political project that tackles the very fears and insecurities that racism taps into. Cutting deals with Shorten at the expense of refugee rights is not a pragmatic necessity but the road to defeat. Shorten is no Corbyn and never will be.

The political situation in Australia has not matured enough to produce our Corbyn moment. We don't know who she or he will be, or what political form such a movement will take. But what is certain is that the best way to bring that day forward is to build a movement that is uncompromising in its commitment to refugee and workers’ rights.  

[Sam Wainwright is a former member of the MUA, an activist in the Refugee Rights Action Network, a councillor at the City of Fremantle and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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