||Issue No. 124||15 February 2002|
Chickens Come Home
Unions: Winning the Heartland
Interview: Swan's Song
Corporate: Lessons from Enron
Politics: What We Did Last Summer
History: Solidarity in Song
International: A Tale of Two Cities
Poetry: Nobody Told Me
Review: Labor and the Rings
Satire: Rafter Named Bermudan Of The Year For Tax Purposes
The Locker Room
Week in Review
'International Labour's Year in Review' - A Re-View
Collins Gets Cryptic
Chinks in the Armour
Mark Latham comes with a heavy pedigree. He's written a book. He is regularly lauded in the mainstream media as a bright young thing shaking up the Labour Party with his new ideas. Commentators nominate him as a future leader. The Parliamentary Caucus certainly think he has something to offer. He is - after self-imposed exile on the backbench to develop and advocate policy - , once again, a member of the Shadow Cabinet.
His response to John Robertson's letter introducing Labor for Refugees should therefore be an important document. After all, if the Party wants to decrease the formal power of unions in its decision making forums then it will need to encourage open debate around policy issues. Otherwise, how can it ever inform itself about what should be appropriate responses to the issues of the day. A debate between the leaders of the Labor Movement in NSW and a star of the parliamentary caucus is something to be watched closely. Perhaps this is how the caucus will demonstrate its willingness to listen.
What we get from Mr. Latham is an attack on anyone who holds views that are different to his. As far as Labor for Refugees is concerned, he acknowledges that there are "some good people among it(sic) membership." But the letter then goes on in the crudest terms to characterise anyone supporting the proposals of Labor for Refugees as :
- fellow travellers with the Greens and Democrats,
- supporters of people smuggling,
- betrayers of the Labor Movement's traditional values,
- purveyors of a rights agenda - (whatever that is),
- protected from the real world by the "purchase of private security, private education, private health insurance and private transport."
In particular, the Labor Council is slapped around for expressing opinions on issues like refugees. Rather, it should
"redirect its resources to tangible social justice campaigns, such as:
1. The reform of housing and welfare policies to eliminate poverty in public housing estates.
2. The reform of under-performing government high schools in poor neighbourhoods, with their high rates of absenteeism, violence and student failure.
3. The reform of the lazy, self-serving NSW Police Service that now spends more time avoiding crime in working class suburbs than solving it."
Perhaps the cheapest shot taken is to single out Philip Adams as a typical supporter of these views and then repeat a quite vicious story to his detriment - apparently with the purpose of exposing his supposed hypocrisy.
The meat of the letter argues the Government's position. In doing so it exposes just how shallow that argument is.
- He claims that when we entered into our international commitments there was no people smuggling. (Therefore, presumably, times have changed and we can just ignore those commitments.)
- Because these people have landed somewhere else in Asia they have obtained refuge already. Getting to Australia is therefore just country shopping.
(This is lucky for Australia. Our geography should mean, if this is a correct interpretation of our responsibilities, that we should just about never have to accept refugees. We live so far away, refugees aiming to seek refuge here will always land somewhere else first and then we can wipe our hands of them.)
- Indonesia is to blame. They have turned a blind eye to people smuggling and have "tried to pass on the flow of asylum seekers to our country."
(The problem is that Howard himself has specifically denied that Indonesia is to blame. He is quoted as saying that "He has never accused the Indonesian Government of being responsible for the illegal trafficking of people.") (SMH, 5-2-02)
- We have to have mandatory detention to conduct health and security checks.
(What is it about Woomera and Port Hedland that makes these places ideal for the conduct of these checks. Do they work better in a desert? Is Manus Island and Nauru a good place to do them? Manus Island at least doesn't seem to be ideal. It's malaria prone and no, we didn't arrange for them to be protected against malaria - so yes, now those health checks will indeed be pretty important.)
- Some of the "refugees" are not really refugees.
(Yes, that's true - and no-one to my knowledge denies that fact. Of 131 applicants from the Tampa, the New Zealand Government has rejected just one. Economic migrants should indeed be identified and sent home. The problem is that processing is deliberately slow or stopped altogether to either encourage or force applicants to give up and ask to be sent home.)
- Our refugee program should be aimed at those with the highest level of need - those in refugee camps. (Absolutely. We agree again. The problem is that Australia takes a pathetically small number of refugees each year - far fewer than comparable countries - and the level is actually falling. Many members of the community object to the refugees in mandatory detention on the basis that they are queue jumpers. The problem is that there is no queue.)
- Unskilled migration hasn't been a success.
(Yes, we agree, but so what? We were talking about refugees. Some of the people in Woomera may be doctors or engineers or parliamentarians for all I know. But skill doesn't come into it. They are either refugees or not. The point is that they claim to be people who need to seek refuge in another country - they fear for their lives. Our international obligations require that we deal with their application for refuge and grant it if they are genuine refugees.)
The worst part of this diatribe is the way in which Mr Latham - representing as he does a working class constituency - seeks to wrap himself in the mantle of Curtin and Chifley. He is a true representative of the views of working people - as opposed to those privileged and hypocritical elites like Philip Adams and John Robertson (and me) who cocoon ourselves with private security, education, health insurance and transport. (For the record I now confess that the Crosby's have the four privates - a burglar alarm in our home, I sent my kids to Catholic systemic schools - we are Catholics, private health insurance and we own a car. I am still not quite sure how this prevents me - or Mr. Latham or anyone else for that matter - from having a view about how the country is governed and being socially responsible. I have all these things because workers have paid my wages for the last 25 years. Generally they seem to think they got value for money.)
I contrast Mr Latham's willingness to be a faithful reflector of the views of those in his constituency with the attitude taken by Lionel Bowen many years ago when he was the Member for Kingsford Smith. I was a delegate to the FEC at the time - a bright eyed, bushy tailed member of the Left - and therefore not all that welcome in what was a stronghold of the Right! It was at the time of the first waves of Vietnamese boat people.
A delegate got up and asked Lionel what he was going to do about these 'chinks from Vietnam'. In his view the navy should be used to tow them back out to sea and if they wouldn't go back to where they belonged, should sink them on the spot.
As you can imagine, a hush fell to see how the Local Member would handle that! What followed was a model of how to educate a group of people about an appropriate set of policies for a movement that wants to see itself as humanitarian.
He acknowledged the delegates' fears. Yes, these people were predominantly low skilled and there was a danger that if uncontrolled it would have an impact on the employment of workers in this electorate and throughout Australia. But the way to deal with the issue was not to attack the asylum seekers. They were acting out of desperation - just as anyone in the room would if the positions were reversed. The need was to attack the problem at source and work out what was going wrong in Vietnam that led to these people leaving. If Vietnam needed aid to get their economy going, then it should be given. He pointed out that given the ideological tensions in Vietnam, it was certain that there would still be people who would want to leave - even if the economic position improved. The way to handle that was to set up processing centres so that people's applications to enter could be processed where they were. We had to set up a queue. And then we had to give hope to these people by admitting a generous number of refugees - and get all the other rich countries around the world to play their part in accepting refugees.
The delegates were happy. They understood the background and the way Lionel spoke that night, they came to realise that these were real people worthy of our sympathy.
I was proud to be a member of the Party that night and to be led by someone like Bowen.
That night, he was being absolutely faithful to the tradition of Chifley and Curtin because that has been the way in which our best parliamentarians have behaved. Our parliamentarians should indeed listen to their constituents and find out what they are thinking. But listening has also to be matched with a responsibility to lead - to work out what is the principled position to take and explain that position to the electorate.
That is, after all, the difference between progressives and conservatives. People like John Howard watch the opinion polls and mirror those views slavishly. In contrast, every great labour leader has tried to work out what is right and sought to change public opinion accordingly. That's why we had the policy we did on the Vietnam War and on Vietnamese refugees - despite their initial unpopularity. And that's why John Robertson and Labor for Refugees are right and should be supported.
Solutions like those of Lionel Bowen in relation to Vietnamese refugees are applicable now. What is surely unacceptable is for us to incarcerate for extended periods in almost the harshest environments imaginable, men, women and children whose only crime is that they are poor and claim to be in fear of their lives. That is simply wrong. The union movement can't tolerate it and neither should the Labour Party.
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