Labor Party members are fed up. They are sick of being ignored, especially over refugee and asylum seeker issues. The divide between the politicians in government in Canberra and the party rank-and-file is growing.
At the last National Conference of the ALP in 2009 the conference adopted a policy that amended Section 157 of the National Platform to say that claims for asylum made in Australia would be assessed here. It reads:
"Protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian Territory. Those found to be owed Australia’s protection under the Refugee Convention and other international instruments will be given permanent protection under the Migration Act 1958 and will be provided with appropriate settlement and support services."
Section 158 of the National Platform adopted by the 2009 National Conference goes on to say:
"For the Australian people to have confidence and trust in the integrity of our migration system, protection claims made in Australia should be assessed and reviewed in a manner which balances efficient decision making with procedural fairness and ensures that our international human rights obligations are met."
This policy was supported at the time by the National Secretary of the AWU, Paul Howes, a participant in the coup that installed Julia Gillard not long after this conference. Even Bob Hawke was quoted in the context of the 2010 federal election as saying "We are all bloody boat people".
So where did the decision to send 800 refugees to Malaysia for processing come from? If the ALP is a political party, and National Conference is any sort of decision-making body about policy, then the decision of the conference should be respected and implemented by those in power in government.
As Robin Rothfield from Labor for Refugees Victoria wrote in a press statement issued on the weekend: "How can party members have any interest in participating in the forthcoming National Conference in December 2011 when a key policy decision made at the National Conference 2009 can be so blatantly ignored?"
This does not mean that refugee advocates inside the party will not be at the next National Conference, but it is a valid question about how the party now functions. No other decision of the National Conference in 2009 seems to have been so blatantly ignored, so what is it about the refugee and asylum seeker issue that causes political blindness?
ALP members joined the party because they wanted Labor to make a difference in government — to bring about a fairer, more just and equitable society. Much is being done by the Labor government in Canberra to achieve those ends, a lot of it under-reported by the media, but when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, all of the party’s traditions of fairness and social justice fall away in the face of public hysteria about "boat people". Where there is such hysteria, party members expect their government to lead by example and to educate the public, not be influenced by uninformed voters in marginal seats and focus groups.
Labor Party members are not fools, and throw up their hands in despair at government announcements with no initial substance, which lead to the appalling polls that Julia Gillard and her team now face.
As Shane Prince, the Right faction convener of Labor for Refugees in NSW, has said:
"The NSW disease is rampant in this Federal Government and it will have the same effect on Federal Labor as it had on NSW Labor. There is absolutely no difference between the breach of the Platform by the Gillard Government on refugees and the attempted breach of the Platform on the privatisation of electricity in NSW. These people seem intent on tearing the party apart by tearing up its rules."
Of course, one of the proposals being discussed by those pushing for reform within the party is that federal Labor politicians no longer be required to be bound by party policy as decided by National Conference. It seems pointless having a party if that becomes part of the rules!
Labor Party members want their party back, a party that is committed to fairness and social justice for all — including refugees and asylum seekers. Clause One of Chapter 7 of the Party’s Platform says: "Labor believes that every Australian should have the opportunity to reach their potential and to participate fully in the economic and social life of the nation … We have always stood for equality."
Why shouldn’t this apply to refugees and asylum seekers?
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