Refugees and bleeding hearts, wedging back


Rural electorates played a key role in the federal government’s recent decision to allow refugees on temporary visas to apply for mainstream migration visas.

The changes in the government’s attitude to temporary visa (TPV) holders came about as a direct result of pressure from backbench coalition members, in particular a handful from rural seats. They, in turn, were under intense pressure from constituents and employers.

Up to 2,000 refugees on TPVs have worked in rural areas over the past three years, providing much-needed labour in abattoirs, canneries and on farms. From Young to Toolebuc, local people have become acquainted with the refugees, mostly Afghans and Iraqis, and become their friends, employers and champions. Many of these people are part of the Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) network.

Some of the backbenchers who put pressure on the government, such as the National MP John Forrest from Mallee in western Victoria (who led the charge), changed their mind on the refugee issue as a result of dialogue with local RAR supporters.

While RAR has argued for a more humanitarian attitude towards refugees, it has also presented an economic argument: refugees are good news for many rural areas. Their labour has enabled rural enterprises to expand, and the presence of several dozen new wage earners in a town can have a beneficial effect on local businesses. When that happens, and when people meet the refugees face-to-face, once-hostile attitudes change.

So while refugee advocates in the cities can often feel like they are making a lot of noise but only the converted are listening, in rural areas there is the potential to make a real difference. Particularly in marginal seats, and particularly with the Nationals, who are still reeling from One Nation.

Rural and regional electorates will be keenly watched in the lead-up to next month’s election. In NSW, six out of seven top marginal seats are rural; in Victoria, six of the top eight most marginal seats are rural. RAR members are active in all these seats, plus the three most marginal seats in Queensland. It may well be in these Queensland seats that the election is won or lost.

The reason that Rural Australians for Refugees has been potent as a political force is that the government has been unable to dismiss RAR supporters as left-wing ratbags. RAR supporters come from across the political spectrum – some are Liberal and National party members.

At its national conference in Albury in February of this year, more than 200 RAR delegates discussed strategy in the lead-up to the federal election. RAR is non-party political, and its supporters decided they wanted to keep it that way.

The important thing for RAR is to maintain the pressure on ALL political candidates. We have already seen how this can lead, first, to dissension within the ranks of a political party; then to a change in policy.

At the last federal election both the coalition and the ALP lost the support of people incensed by their bipartisan harshness towards asylum seekers. Since then, the ALP has shifted ground substantially and both Liberal and National are acutely away that this is a thorny issue within their ranks, even if most MPs continue to hold the line publicly.

Eden-Monaro is a good example of a marginal electorate with an active RAR presence. The southern NSW seat is held by Liberal Gary Nairn with a 1.7% majority. Since 1972 the seat has been won by the party that wins government.

The ALP candidate is Kelvin Watt, a member of Labor for Refugees. There are five RAR groups in Eden Monaro. Local supporters have met with both Nairn and Watt and both were recently invited to speak at a public meeting in Braidwood that was also attended by Carmen Lawrence.

Despite Kelvin Watt’s support for refugees, RAR will not be officially endorsing him, in line with the policy of remaining non-party political. Rather, RAR supporters will continue with public education work, publicising the attitudes of all candidates to refugee issues, and leaving it to voters to make up their own minds.

RAR has undertaken to hold a public meeting with local candidates in every rural and regional electorate in the country in the lead-up to the election. RAR’s strategy has been to get candidates in individual electorates to declare their hands.

The good old-fashioned local political meeting has been resurrected. It was at such a meeting that RAR was launched in November 2001, five days before the last federal election. That meeting, in Bowral, has been the model for hundreds of subsequent ones. There are now nearly 90 RAR groups around the country and around 12,000 supporters.

RAR is part of a broader movement that has taken the refugee issue to community halls, local parks and the streets in both city and rural areas. When it comes to refugees, the mantra ‘think global, act local’ is being acted out in towns and suburbs across Australia.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.