Since Kevin Rudd’s announcement of Labor’s PNG plan to expel all asylum seekers to PNG (and now also Nauru), thousands of people have turned out across the country in disgust to rally and march. The protests have been angry and loud and have been a fantastic opportunity to take the fight for refugee right to Rudd and Abbott.

Rudd has trashed political principles for the sake of electoral expediency.

The hopes that Rudd could beat Abbott have been confounded by his willingness to trample human rights and impose Howard-like policies to keep asylum seekers out of Australia.

When Rudd replaced Gillard as leader, at first, Labor went up in the polls. But since the PNG announcement, Labor’s popularity has declined, while The Greens are up around 2 per cent. The demonstrations have been vital to challenging any idea that being anti-refugee will help Labor win the election.

Rudd’s sell-out has sharply divided Labor supporters. The ABC’s “Vote Compass” shows that 48 per cent of Labor supporters oppose the PNG deal, compared to 40 per cent in favour.

Significantly, the strong opposition from the unions shows the possibility of a substantial basis for a fightback beyond the federal election. Resolutions opposing Rudd’s PNG solution have already been carried by the ACTU, the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Geelong Trades and Labor Council, Victorian NUW, NSW South Coast Labor Council, the NSW CFMEU Committee of Management, as well as the NSW Teachers Federation.

The rallies are important demonstrations of public anger and also show the scale of the opposition to the PNG Solution. The hundreds of new people at the rallies have been an inspiring show of support for refugees and the potential to build a campaign that can win.

But we will need more than the rallies to stop Rudd and Abbott and stop the PNG solution. Even bigger demonstrations confronted the Howard government in 2001 when he used the military to prevent the MV Tampa bringing asylum seekers to Christmas Island and went on to introduce the Pacific Solution mark I. But Howard won the election in 2001. Hundreds of thousands marched against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but with no political strategy to sustain the campaign after the invasion, it dwindled sharply. We can’t afford to let that happen this time.

With both parties committed to denying refugees settlement in Australia, no matter which party wins the election on 7 September, the campaign will have to continue.

We need to build out of the rallies, and draw more people actively into the campaign.

Building roots

After Howard introduced the Pacific Solution in 2001, the campaign was able to develop and grow stronger.

The Tampa protests led to a blossoming of grassroots committees: Rural Australians for Refugees, Labor For Refugees, Actors for Refugees, Teachers for Refugees, We are all boat people, and various local suburban groups: like Bennelong, Balmain and Blue Mountains for Refugees. We need all these again and more still.

Protests and demonstrations, inside and outside the detention centres (like the Woomera breakout in 2002) pushed the refugee issue into the political mainstream.
As a result, children, families and long-term detainees were released in 2004, three years before Howard was defeated in 2007.

Between 2001 and 2006, Labor supported every piece of anti-refugee legislation that Howard introduced. But in 2006, Labor voted against legislation to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone. The Labor leaders finally found some principle and supported Labor policy because of the grassroots campaign that had been waged from 2000/2001.

Hopefully, the formation of Doctors for Refugees last week was a straw in the wind. But spreading the campaign to establish university, school, workplace and suburban groups is something that has to be worked at. Community groups are key to countering the politician’s myths and the media’s lies, campaigning to build awareness of the issues, responding to local developments and establishing enduring networks in workplaces, church groups and schools.

This way the campaign grows wider and deeper roots and is able to mobilise much more effectively.
Historically, this was, for example, the way the anti-Vietnam war and anti-uranium movements built networks and activist groupings throughout the community. By 1977, there were 100 local anti-uranium groups in Victoria alone. It meant that when the big central demonstrations took place, it was not just individuals that came into the centre of the city—but groups of people mobilising their union and community networks. Local forums and rallies built central rallies of thousands.

Labor and refugees

Rudd’s policy has shocked and deeply divided Labor, in the same way that then Labor leader Kim Beazley’s support for Howard at the time of the Tampa shocked Labor members and supporters. Under the Howard government, breaking the bi-partisan support for anti-refugee policies was a crucial part of shifting public opinion and building a campaign.

By 2004, all state and territory Labor conferences had carried Labor for Refugees policy resolutions. At the 2004 national Labor conference, substantial changes were also won in national policy—ending detention of children, 90 per cent of asylum cases to be settled in 90 days and an end to the Pacific Solution. Two years later, Labor committed to replacing temporary protection visas with permanent protection.

Whether or not Labor wins the election, the campaign will need to work with rank and file Labor members to again shift Labor policy and overturn off-shore processing on Nauru and Manus Island that was adopted in 2012.

Eighty Labor Party branches are affiliated to Labor for Refugees in Victoria. Resolutions, sending campaign and refugee speakers to branch meetings, and conferences will all help to extend the reach of the campaign and build up momentum.

In particular, the refugee campaign has to explicitly re-establish connections with the labour movement. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, because the unions control 50 per cent of the Labor conference, they have a significant influence on Labor Party policy.

The second and more important issue is that despite the decline in membership in recent years, the unions remain the most significant and powerful community group in Australian politics.

In 1976, the anti-uranium issue was pushed into the national agenda when a Townsville railway shunting supervisor was sacked for implementing union anti-uranium policy and refused to couple trucks headed for a Queensland uranium mine.

A 24-hour national rail strike got his job back, although the unions then agreed not to block shipments. Nonetheless it was a taste of the power of industrial action wielded for a significant social issue.

Solidarity with PNG

On 3 August, 2000 PNG students protested against the refugee deal struck between Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

Armed police stopped the students marching to the Australian High Commission. The following week, when O’Neill refused to accept the students’ petition, there was a week-long boycott of classes.
Wider meetings of students, unionists, anti-corruption campaigners, women’s rights groups and others are now being called to build bigger protests against the PNG deal.

This grassroots PNG campaign has the potential to derail the PNG deal from within PNG itself.
Building solidarity between the campaigns in Australia and PNG will be a central component of a more active cross-border campaign to take the fight to our respective governments.

Next steps

The 24 August national day of action will see thousands on the streets again for refugee rights. In Sydney, on 31 August, the Refugee Action Coalition has called a protest to march on Deputy PM Anthony Albanese’s electoral office in Marrickville. It can also take a sharp political message to the door of the Labor leaders that there is serious opposition to bashing refugees.

The protests can convince more people to vote 1 The Greens to let Labor know just how much people are disgusted with their attempt to win office by denying human rights to refugees.

But more importantly they can draw more people into actively campaigning after the election. The fight for refugee rights will not be won in Parliament.

Both Labor and Liberal aspire to nothing more than running the capitalist system—a system of imperialism that perpetuates war and persecution—and a system of immigration and border controls that inflicts misery on its victims.

We need to build a campaign to free the refugees as part of the struggle to smash the system that creates them.

By Ian Rintoul

What you can do

In every major city there are refugee action groups. We need more people active in the organising committees. We need to use the outburst of anger to set up refugee action committees in the suburbs, in unions, in workplaces, schools and universities.

Solidarity is actively involved in the refugee action groups in cities and on campuses. Contact us to get involved in the fight for refugee rights.

(i)     Come to the refugee action meetings in your city. See www.refugeeaction.org.au for Sydney details and links to other cities;

(ii)    Help set up a suburban, school or workplace group;

(iii)   Organise local meetings—RAC can help with refugee and campaign speakers

(iv)    Carry this resolution at a union/workplace meeting:
This meeting condemns the Labor government’s PNG solution and the Coalition’s policy for offshore processing and temporary protection visas. We call for all asylum boat arrivals to be processed and resettled in Australia. Over 90 per cent of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees. We call on our state and federal union organisations to oppose the PNG solution and to actively support the refugee campaign.

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