Earlier this year, Canberra Refugee Action Campaign produced a discussion document which made a number of points about the current situation as we saw it at the time of writing in late December. At that time the following factors we considered the most important in shaping the environment in which we were operating.
At the beginning of 2020
- Opinion about Australia’s policies had, in general, moved somewhat in our direction over the longer term. In 2019, when asked the question ‘are you personally concerned that Australia is too harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees’, 48% said they were ‘a great deal’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned, 47% said ‘only slightly’ or ‘not at all concerned’.
- People had shifted in the direction of thinking off-shore detention was not a long-term solution. The most recent poll – done in 2018 – showed that 37% of people were in support of closing down Nauru and bringing the people there to Australia, while 42% were opposed. However, 43% were opposed to keeping Nauru going indefinitely against 35% in support.
- Reinforcing these shifts is a late November 2019 poll which showed that 60% of people either supported Medevac as it was or thought it should be more compassionate. In February, 2019, 16% thought Medevac should be more compassionate. In the November poll that figure rose to 25%. Only 22% bought the government line that it weakened national security.
- However, there is no evidence that people have shifted much on questions like boat-turn-backs – the most difficult of the issues for us to win.
- Immigration (unlike in Europe) was far from the most important issue for the great majority of people. The economy was the major concern (29%) followed by the environment (with a major rise to 17%). Immigration was viewed as the major problem by 6% (most of whom probably believed it was too high) but poor treatment of asylum seekers/ refugees by only 1%. This doesn’t indicate the asylum seekers are unimportant in the minds of many – just that it is not the most important issue to them.
- The surprise win by the Coalition in the election in May demoralised many of our supporters and made it more difficult to mobilise them.
Since then there have been a number of developments which have also to be taken into account.
- Firstly, the bushfires dominated discussion in the first few months and led to a rapid growth of the climate campaign. This also had the effect of drawing some activists out of our campaign and toward it.
- Secondly, since coronavirus struck, every other issue (including climate) has taken a back seat, with the exception, for a time, of the Black Lives Matter protests.
- Thirdly, the physical mobilisations on which our campaigning have been so reliant have either had to be cancelled or have been much reduced. For example, the Palm Sunday demonstrations on which we had been working for months had to be called off. The terrible situations for the people in the Mantra and at Kangaroo Point have provided a focal point which has been a partial exception to this.
- Finally, the government, which was looking very shaky in the polls during the bushfires has recovered some ground since and Morrison’s personal approval has risen substantially.
What to do?
We have found that the people we are trying to mobilise have no hope at all that the current government can be forced to change its ways on refugees and asylum seekers. In this, they are almost certainly correct. Of course, we should continue to call them out and protest every aspect of their barbaric policies. But for many people in our audience, this doesn’t feel enough. It seems that nothing we can possibly do will make a difference to government policy.
- A renewed emphasis on Labor. In the 2019 data, three groups registered above 60% in believing that Australia is too harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers: Greens voters (87%), those aged 18-24 (70%), and Labor voters (61% – c.f. 30% of LNP voters). There are no polls to show this, but anecdotally, the proportion of ALP members who think this is almost certainly higher than their voting base. Yet the Labor leadership has consistently stood by a largely bi-partisan policy. Labor’s last election manifesto reflected the the party’s conflicted nature on the question. On the one hand it stays with the essentials of the current policy. On the other it talks about doing everything “humanly possible” to minimise detention. This doesn’t mean that we stop campaigning against the government which is currently pursuing these inhumane policies. It means that we try to build a broader coalition which includes Labor members and supporters.
- “What’s the Plan Labor? An emphasis on demanding that Labor produce a plan for getting these people out of detention and resettled immediately. It is clear that the government has no such plan and is prepared to leave them there forever. We should be demanding of Labor “What’s the Plan Labor?” on Medevac, on the people in detention etc. From their own point of view, now is the time in the electoral cycle to produce such a plan and to begin to argue publicly for it. However, we are not simply saying that they should wait until the next election – which they might not win in any case – to do anything. They have an opportunity now to speak out on immediate issues in the campaign. We should be demanding, for example, – not just that the government get the people out of the Mantra and Kangaroo Point and that Priya and Nades be enabled to return to Biloela – but that Labor should be demanding it right now as well. So it is not just that Labor should have a plan should it win the election in 2022. The fact that Labor says nothing on these issues now reduces the pressure on the government and tends to legitimise what the government is doing.
- Campaigning on this issue on multiple platforms. We can have an on-going social media campaign running about Labor as well as things like opinion pieces published. Where there is the opportunity to do so we can also have physical mobilisations – e.g. if/when a National Conference is held, at Labor member’s electoral offices. Also, when we hold actions about the issue in general, we can make sure that a certain proportion of the speeches, placards etc deal with Labor as well as with the government. We should – on a local level – approach especially the newer Labor MPs for further discussions.
- Broad orientation and manoeuvre. Taking a consistent position of putting pressure on Labor doesn’t mean that we do nothing else. It is possible to have an ongoing orientation of building this pressure but also reacting to each and every one of the outrages that the government is carrying out. The ongoing terrible things happening in the Mantra and Kangaroo Point, and to those still in PNG and Nauru, the attempt by Dutton to take people’s phones, the plight of Priya and Nades and family and many other issues should still be fought and the government’s action attacked. But as we do so, we should also be asking Labor – what would you do about it and what do you say about it right now? Why aren’t you demanding something be done about it now? What’s your plan? In many ways we don’t determine the issues at any particular time on which we organise. They are products of government policies and unfold in different ways. Napoleon would set the broad plans for a battle but still give his generals the command to “manoeuvre according to circumstance”. Something similar might apply here.
- Better national coordination. The COVID-19 crisis has made online events much more common. This provides some greater opportunity for national coordination. Why have an online public meeting in one city or state which is not open to people throughout the country? Why organise one without some coordination between the various groups to get their input? We also suggest that all the materials which are produced – e.g. memes, graphics, opinion pieces etc have an unbranded version which can be shared and used by all.
These are some ideas which we hope will stimulate some further discussion and constructive collaboration.