The Gillard Labor government was thrown into disarray in late August when the High Court of Australia ruled its latest refugee policy ‘unlawful’.
Rather than reflecting on the fact that the policy of sending refugees offshore represents a gross breach of human rights, the Gillard government has instead decided to try it’s luck at changing the law!
Proposed changes to the Migration Act would see the Minister for Immigration given executive power to decide where asylum seekers can be sent offshore. This decision cannot be challenged either in Parliament or through the courts, and includes the ability to deport unaccompanied children.
There is no doubt that this represents a new low in the race to scapegoat and demonise asylum seekers for political gain.
Many have argued that those in power, particularly the ALP, would prefer to take a “more humane” approach to refugees, but to do so would mean electoral suicide. Therefore – the argument goes – they have no choice but to engage in a race to the bottom.
This logic is flawed on many levels. Despite the fact that two recent polls have shown a majority of Australians are opposed to offshore processing, this is what both major parties continue to advocate. Labor has opted for Malaysia as their favored dumping ground, while the Liberals prefer the tiny island nation of Nauru.
More importantly it was both Labor and Liberal who contorted the ‘refugee issue’ into a prime political battleground in which truth was the first casualty.
The political bashing of asylum seekers arriving by boat developed in its current form under the Howard government. The notorious ‘Tampa election’ of 2001 saw an unpopular Liberal government use the issue of ‘border protection’ to re-win government.
A committee was set up inside the Prime Minister’s department to manufacture lies and propaganda around asylum seekers. The ‘children overboard’ affair saw high level government figures engage in orchestrated lies in order to dehumanise ‘boat people’.
The Australian newspaper wrote derisively that the government “has mobilised and inflamed public opinion against Muslims and refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan. What a triumph of leadership. What a way to win an election.”
Even the Financial Review criticised “Howard’s weasel words about Australia’s warmth…[while] the Coalition is prepared to use human beings as pawns in its domestic electoral struggle.”
The ALP’s ‘Malaysia deal’, and its attempt to circumvent the High Court decision, is simply the latest assault in a decade long war the major parties have waged against asylum seekers.
The current public support for a ‘tough stance’ on refugees is the result of ten years of political manipulation and misinformation. A recent survey found that more than three-quarters of Australians have enormously overinflated ideas about the numbers of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia and the cost of resettling them.
However, it is not as simple as educating people about the facts. In fact, a 2011 poll has shown a rise in sympathy for asylum seekers, as well as a renewed understanding that the overwhelming majority of ‘boat people’ are found to be genuine refugees.
But what this same poll showed is that one of people’s greatest concerns is the rising gap between rich and poor. This is what lies at the heart of people’s views on asylum seekers.
Politicians whip up racist fears to divert attention away from the underlying reasons for falling living conditions and financial strain. Labor, Liberal and the Greens have all pushed the idea that ‘overcrowding’ is to blame for diminishing access to jobs, housing and services like healthcare and education.
Winning support for the right to seek asylum and be resettled in Australia requires addressing the basis of people’s concerns. The campaign for refugee rights needs to be linked to a political program that ensures jobs, homes and services for all.
Racist scapegoating and anti-immigration rhetoric needs to be opposed by a call for a socialist plan of production. There is more than enough wealth in society to cater for all. The problem is that capitalism means the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. At the same time war and persecution continues as people scramble for resources.
Only a socialist economy based on public ownership, democratic control and sustainable planning can allow society’s resources to be used to provide improved standards of living for all, rather than enrich a tiny elite.
By Socialist Party reporters