- Things have shifted our way on the refugee issue
- 2019 is the year to end the offshore detention/warehousing regime
- The Federal election is a crucial time for our campaign
- Palm Sunday must be the focus for the first four months of 2019 and will be our major intervention in the election
- Building and rebuilding our structure in the lead-up to Palm Sunday is central
In 2018, refugees continued to be a major issue in politics in Europe and in the US. In Europe, governments and right-wing groups in Poland, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere have continued to use the refugee issue as a scapegoat for broader social problems. In the US, Trump’s attack on the “caravan” of people mostly from Honduras travelling through Mexico was a manufactured crisis in the lead-up to the mid-term elections. The fact that this was a beat-up can be seen from the fact that he sent 15,000 troops to the border before the elections, weeks before the caravan could possibly get there.
We reiterate two points that we have made in previous planning documents. The first is that in every case there is a political contest. There is opposition to xenophobic and racist sentiment which has been mobilised against refugees and we should see ourselves as part of it. Secondly, since Australia has pioneered the worst and most inhumane policies anywhere, what we do in this country really matters beyond our shores as well. Any campaign here, in the country of origin of anti-refugee policies, will hearten those fighting them elsewhere.
In 2018, we saw some significant shifts in public attitudes to refugees, especially to those who’ve been kept on Nauru and Manus Island for the last five and a half years and particularly to children on Nauru. This reflects a longer-term shift in attitudes in the direction we want to see.
Already in mid-2017, a Lowy poll showed that those who thought that the people on Manus Island and Nauru should never be settled in Australia (48%) was almost balanced by those who thought they should be brought here (45%). A poll earlier that year also showed an even split on the question with majorities in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT saying bring them here. This also showed that Labor voters (68%) were clearly in favour of resettlement in Australia.
The most recent poll at the time of writing (a Guardian Essential Poll on 8 October, 2018) about what to do with all the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru, also shows a fairly even split but has two other interesting features. Firstly, there is a very high “don’t know” response probably reflecting confusion about the issue. Secondly, a higher percentage of people do not agree that Nauru, and probably Manus, are long-term or permanent solutions than those who see them as needed indefinitely.
The most stunning poll was commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph poll in late October and showed that 80% wanted children and their families transferred off the island and taken to New Zealand. In August, Murdoch papers began publishing stories sympathetic to the suffering of children on Nauru. That the most anti-refugee and pro-government papers in the country were doing so must reflect a shift in broader public opinion. As a Murdoch source told The Saturday Paper: “Whatever else you might say about News Corp, we can see which way the wind is blowing”.
It was clear in the Batman by-election that refugees were an important issue. Labor could only deal with it by finding the most pro-refugee candidate possible. Later, in the Wentworth by-election, refugees were one of the top three major issues (along with the removal of Turnbull and climate change). The new cross-bench in the House is (with the exception of Bob Katter) sympathetic to getting people off Nauru and Manus – at least on medical grounds as are Hinch, Griff and Storer in the Senate. On 6 December, the last sitting day of parliament, the government had to shut down the House in order to avoid a possible loss on the floor – suggesting they believed that at least one of their own would cross the floor to support the bill to remove people on medical grounds from Manus and Nauru. This would have been the first time a government had lost a vote in the House since 1929.
These are major shifts both in the public and amongst politicians which reflect two things. The first is the sheer length of time people have been on Manus and Nauru with an “It’s Time” feeling building amongst some previously undecided or wavering people. The second is that activists such as us have kept going and refused to allow the issue to go away.
While some of the public response was based on the desire to get children off Nauru, it soon broadened to adults on medical advice from both Nauru and Manus and this was the bill that eventually went to parliament. If we succeed with that, it will be hard (even in the government’s twisted logic) to justify keeping anyone there. In other words, the demands are clearly broadening as well as gaining community acceptance.
There are many things we want to change about Australia’s refugee policy – a significant increase in the quota, an end to all mandatory detention, an end to TPVs etc. However, over the next period the focus of concern for most people will continue to be Manus and Nauru. This is what we should also focus on, taking this opportunity to end offshore detention/warehousing for good.
The Coalition will run hard on border protection, with a murky mixture of protecting Australia from terrorism, from refugees and dog-whistling racism as in the past. But since the refugee issue has less traction for them than in the past, they have now shifted somewhat, indicating that they might also cut overall immigration. They are trying to take advantage of the the majority (54%) who say that the number of migrants coming each year is too high. RAC does not take a position on what the immigration level should be. However, immigration policy in general is connected in many people’s minds with refugee policy. There is frequently a feeling that refugees make up a much larger proportion of the immigration intake than they actually do. So proposals to cut immigration have an impact on feelings about refugees. Opposition to immigration is not all about racism – to a large extent it can reflect concerns about congested cities etc. However, anti-immigration sentiment can easily intersect with various forms of hostility to outsiders. This is particularly the case with Muslims, where a poll in 2017 showed almost half the population opposed all Muslim immigration. So this too will have an impact on our campaign.
However, proposing major cuts to immigration is also dangerous for the Coalition. About half of Australian economic growth is due to immigration and business is very much in favour of a large intake. So while they might increase the rhetoric about cuts to immigration, the outcome will probably be much smaller.
Labor has always been conflicted over its refugee policy, reflecting the fact that a clear majority of its supporters (and certainly a huge majority of its members) have always opposed it. Yet Labor has tried to narrow the gap between it and the Coalition on the question – repeatedly saying they have the same position as the government. And they are enormously risk-averse even now. On 17 October, Nick McKim moved a motion on Nauru and Manus Island in the Senate. Labor moved to split the motion in order to vote against the following paragraph:
“..calls on the Federal Government to immediately bring every child in detention on Nauru to Australia for urgent medical and psychological assessment and treatment, along with the family members of children being assessed and treated.”
This was despite the fact that children were already being taken off Nauru on those grounds. And the polls now show that Labor would not suffer electorally and would probably gain by taking a decent position.
However, since then, the willingness of the cross-bench (including Liberal defector Julia Banks) to speak and take action on Nauru and Manus has increased the pressure on Labor. With only one further Liberal crossing the floor in the House, there would be a majority. This makes which way Labor votes serious.
Labor’s policy adopted in December, 2018, while it is significantly better policy than that of the Coalition, illustrates the slippery double-talk which they have adopted in an attempt to simultaneously placate their base and appear to be “tough” on border protection. Their National Conference was a staged-managed avoidance of the issue.
While the policy talks about 90 days as the maximum in detention, there is no requirement for this to happen or for there to be judicial review at that time. Instead, the language is to make “every effort” to remove people after 90 days.
“As soon as the reasons for mandatory detention have ceased every effort must be made to remove asylum seekers from immigration detention centres through community detention or the granting of bridging visas with work rights.”
Although the draft policy says that processing of claims made in Australia must be done in Australia by Australians, it also continues the excision of territory under the Migration Act – which means that these applications will be deemed to not have been made in Australia. Amazingly, there is no mention in the policy of Manus and Nauru at all.
While these evasions are to be criticised, they also illustrate the sensitivity of the issue to Labor and, therefore, degree to which we can put pressure on a Labor government – especially on offshore detention.
Palm Sunday and the Federal Election
2019 is the year to end offshore detention. The first five months of the year will be crucial. This is, firstly, because of the continued shift of the public in our direction. Secondly, this period will be the run-up to the Federal election – one which, at the time of writing, it appears Labor will win.
The tone of our campaigning should combine two elements: The first is to encapsulate the strong sense that the offshore regime has simply gone on far too long and cannot continue indefinitely. The second is that now there is a real chance to end it once and for all.
The last possible date for an election is 18 May. Palm Sunday is on 14 April and, therefore, is very likely to be during the formal campaign. The best contribution we can make to keeping the refugee issue prominent in the election is to put the bulk of our efforts into building for Palm Sunday. The key is not necessarily to convince another layer of people about an alternative approach to dealing with asylum seekers but to make it a prominent election issue. Even if a flyer, a poster, a corflute beside the highway or a social media post advertising Palm Sunday doesn’t mention the election, it still has an impact on the campaign.
We are often asked how we might influence politicians. We have had individual meetings with them, sent emails, letters, had protests outside their offices. All of these are useful. But the thing that influences politicians above all is when their constituences are influenced on the issue. To send local parliamentarians an email is useful, but if every time they drive to work they see our corflutes, or when they shop or go to the markets they see our posters or our flyers, this is even more effective because they know that these will be seen by those who will be deciding which number to put beside their names on a ballot paper.
Again, this illustrates why building Palm Sunday is crucial. We are not suggesting that we do nothing else before Palm Sunday. Some of the working groups might organise events – indeed we hope they will. For example, the uni groups should have events in O-week and shortly after. But we should try to use these events to feed into Palm Sunday. That is, there should be material at them advertising Palm Sunday and we should be recruiting people there to help build it.
Activities Reports for 2018
This list captures the major events. There have also been a number of smaller events that are not listed including the various activities that are undertaken to build for major events.
For example, in the lead up to a number of events, we have distributed leaflets over the 2-3 preceding weekends at the two Farmers’ Markets, displayed posters at suburban shopping centres across the city, and held up prominent signs at busy traffic intersections each morning in the week before the Palm Sunday rally.
This list does not include the activities of the various RAC Working Groups, these are listed in the Group reports below.
Rallies & snap vigils and protests
Palm Sunday rally, Garema Place, 25 March
Five Years Too Long rally, Commonwealth Bridge, 21 July
Kids Off Nauru rally, in conjunction with RAR, Parliament House, 16 Oct
Kids Off; Everyone Off rally, Northbourne Ave & London Circuit, 17 Nov
Kids Off Nauru rally, in conjunction with RCoA, Parliament House, 27 Nov
Vigil for Salim Kyawning, Garema Place, 24 May
Vigil for Fariborz K, Garema Place, 19 June
Public meetings & forums
Refugees Make Australia Better, Speaker – Dr Munjed Al Muderis, 1 March
Australia’s Refugee Policy – Leading the World Backwards, Speaker – Dr John Minns, 12 April
Refugees: Alternatives to Cruelty, Speakers – Dr Claire Higgins & Dr John Minns; Chair – Dr Matthew Zagor, 4 September
Book launch – No Friend But The Mountains, Speakers – Behrouz Boochani, Paul Bongiorno, Moones Mansoubi, 27 September
- 30 Jan
- 26 April
- 6 June
- 8 August
- 24 October
RAC Canberra-wide organisational events
Jam For Refugees – in conjunction with All Saints Anglican Church, 1 June
Refugee Week – Super RAC Stalls Saturday, 23 June
Activities by month:
Faith-Based Working Group
Over 200 people have expressed interest in the Faith-Based Working Group (FBWG) by ticking the relevant box on the RAC sign-up sheet. However, only about 20 are actively involved. We send out occasional emails to the 200-plus list regarding events which are specifically faith-related, and have a FBWG Facebook page.
During 2018 the FBWG met monthly at the Friends’ Meeting House in Turner, kindly provided free by the Quakers. During the year, in addition to assisting at RAC events, the FBWG undertook the following activities:
- In March 29 banners were delivered to churches, schools and other religious institutions advertising the Palm Sunday rally on 25 March.
- Several members of the FBWG wore sackcloth (an ancient sign of repentance) at the Palm Sunday rally prompting questions from others and providing an opportunity for discussion.
- In May, the FBWG wrote to the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, on the NZ government’s offer to resettle 150 refugees per year, urging her to continue pushing the Australian government to accept the offer. In June we met Andrew White, First Secretary at the New Zealand High Commission, who was happy to continue promoting NZ’s offer.
- In association with the Canberra Taizé Community, a reflective Taizé service was held on 10 June at Weston Creek Uniting Church. About 30 people attended. The FBWG will maintain contact with the Taizé community with a view to holding further such services.
- Our Muslim members on the FBWG were not able to attend many activities in 2018 and we continue to seek more involvement by Muslim, Jewish and other faith communities.
- Members of the FBWG have taken a leading role in maintenance of the SIEV X memorial in Weston Park.
- Two FBWG members visited Manus Island during the year and other members maintained regular contact with the detainees.
- Following reports of loneliness amongst some of the refugees resettled in the United States, FBWG members contacted US churches to ask them to assist the new residents.
- Five members of the group attended a “#RightTrack conversations” session on facilitating these groups in the community.
- The FBWG is keen to promote a stronger sense of community amongst members and has organised several social activities during the year.
Rainbow Refugee Action
Rainbow Refugee Action held meetings almost every month throughout the year with around 15 people in our core group.
Our major campaign actions were:
- Holding a successful discussion panel at Muse during SpringOut “A Discussion about LGBTIQ Asylum Seekers, including their lives in Canberra”. Around 25 people attended [4 new sign ups] and heard four great speakers – Tina Dixson, a Queer woman refugee activist, Liz Huang Hughes, a lawyer for some Commonwealth Games’ asylum seekers and our own Meg Clark and Dave Worner.
- SpringOut Fairday Stall– where over 150 postcards were signed to politicians on LGBT asylum seekers.
- Met with Minister Steele, as part of a delegation supporting the Commonwealth Games’ asylum seekers in Canberra.
- Supported a protest action outside Braddon Immigration Office in support of Commonwealth Games asylum seekers.
We have also increasingly provided personal support to asylum seekers and refugees on Manus, Nauru and here in Canberra. Our work in this area includes:
- Making direct representation to three different Rainbow refugee community sponsorship programs in Canada on behalf of one man in Manus and two men on Nauru.
- Providing ongoing personal support to two gay men on Manus and a gay couple on Nauru – all refugees.
- Making contact with, and offering support to, Companion House that has initiated an LGBT support group for asylum seekers and refugees. Qwire provided two free tickets to their last concert for group members.
- Meeting with the Cameroonian asylum seekers – gay, lesbian and allies to offer support and community.
- Briefing an ALP community sponsorship working group about the importance of explicitly including LGBT refugees.
- Holding a BBQ in late January, to which we will be inviting local LGBT asylum seekers.
- Briefing Equality Australia, a new national LGBTIQ human rights group, on why LGBT community sponsorship is an important initiative for Australia.
- Briefing CM Barr on the increasing discrimination against LGBT asylum seekers worldwide and the decreasing number of nations that accept LGBT refugees.
Meg and AMD for Rainbow Refugee Action.
Unionists for Refugees
Throughout 2018 we’ve continued to build Unionists for Refugees with both successes and some challenges while also building links with similar groups such as Union Aid Abroad APHEDA to attempt to capitalise on shared values.
- Our biggest success was the large union turnout at the Palm Sunday rally with Unionists for Refugees visibly represented by contingents from the AEU, CFMEU, CPSU, NTEU, UnionsACT, United Voice, and Vintage Reds.
- We had a social media campaign during Refugee Week, featuring statements by union leaders from the AEU (Glenn Fowler), NTEU (Rachael Bahl), UnionsACT (Alex White) and United Voice (Lyndal Ryan).
- We maintained a Twitter account, Facebook account, website and email address.
Our messaging continues to be distinct from other RAC messaging as the continued development of a distinct identity as a union-based group is important. For union members, this issue is best framed as protecting rights where an attack on one person’s rights is an attack on all.
There has been a noticeable shift in support for refugees and asylum seekers from the Federal ALP. While the ALP’s policy is still far from ideal, it is moving in the right direction. The ACTU strongly supports the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and Ged Kearney’s election means that advocacy within the ALP will continue to be stronger than previously. This may allow ALP-affiliated unions to be more outspoken.
Some members of our group went to the ARAN conference, however the union part of the conference wasn’t particularly productive. This means that we’re still yet to meaningfully connect with union groups campaigning on this issue in other states or territories.
Our biggest barrier is time. While we met regularly throughout the first half of 2018, other commitments have impacted on our capacity to organise. Our social media campaign late in 2017 focused on eliciting solidarity workplace photos and was a good way to engage people in their work environment. While we’ve been good at engaging union officers and staff we need to consider how to better reach (and involve) grassroots union members and incorporate activism into their working lives. Weekday events are difficult for members to attend, and many have family and caring responsibilities at other times.
Our priorities to consider over 2019 include establishing regular communication with members, consolidating a distinct and recognisable identity, and reaching grassroots union members. We also need to continue to build our presence at high profile events such as Palm Sunday and bring new activists into the organising side of the group so that we’re less reliant on a few key people.
UC Refugee Action Club
Throughout 2018, UC RAC have had many significant successes in awareness raising, club development, events and merchandising, but we have also had significant logistical challenges in terms of event planning and organisation, particularly regarding the art exhibition, originally scheduled for the end of October, and now postponed to February 2019.
We started off the year with a raffle for tickets to Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow” to engage our new members, and have maintained regular weekly social meetings. These extended throughout the mid-year break into Semester Two, ending mid-November. We have also held a variety of screenings of refugee documentaries, conducted a successful trivia night, and subsidised attendance to external refugee-related events, such as the UNHCR Canberra Representative’s talk at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Except for assessment periods, these were consistently well attended, and a stronger social aspect to the club helped with attendance at the larger Canberra RAC demonstrations. However, our contingents at Canberra RAC rallies may never represent the entirety of UC’s pro-refugee students and staff, as many of the people who would otherwise march with us are associated with other contingents, such as Amnesty International, Unionists for Refugees, Academics for Refugees, church groups and others.
Our logo and branding has been redesigned (pictured above), and the new design has been printed on phone card holders, a practical and popular item among university students. The card holders are given free to members, and they have helped to raise the club’s profile, as they won Best Physical Product at UC Life’s 2018 Campus Life Awards. This has increased the effectiveness of our Market Day stalls, enabling more in-depth conversations about current refugee policy with UC RAC’s target markets: persuadable or pro-refugee students and staff, and current refugee students.
UC’s environment represents a unique challenge, with the bureaucracy of UC Union and the absence of a strong club culture on campus as significant obstacles. UC RAC have sought to strengthen our campus connections through joint meetings with other clubs, such as the Politics, International Relations and National Security society (PIRaNaS), Isaacs Law Society, UC United Nations Society, UC Flux, UC Toastmasters and UC Indonesian Society. However, as we still only have a small core of people who are regularly available to help run events such as market days, this remains our main challenge.
Our focus for the new year will initially be finalising plans for the aforementioned art exhibition, including a limited amount of art prints, a slideshow, guest speaker, decorations, programs and personnel. Throughout Semester 1 2019, we will also be fundraising and working further on succession planning and officer training to ensure the longevity of the club.
ANU RAC began the year with a successful O-Week stall. Many new and older students signed up to get involved. Our first few activities focused on welcoming new faces and putting together a large ANU contingent for Palm Sunday — mainly involving semi-regular organising meetings and stalls. A photo-campaign to build for this event was well received on Facebook. The ANU contingent at the rally was quite good and we had, for the first time, ANU Medical Students for Refugees marching. Following the Palm Sunday rally, momentum declined slightly. We held two social events that had a low attendance. Our semester two O-Week stall was less successful than the first, due to a lack of organisation. Despite this, new people came to our organising meetings in the following weeks and were keen to get involved. Our main event this semester, ‘A Story Of Asylum’ (a public meeting with Zaki Haidari) was well attended and drew in some new faces.
Our strengths related to our positive reputation and wide reach on campus. We began the year with a strong presence at O-Week. Many students had already heard of us and were ready to get active. We also begun to build relationships with other groups on campus, such as the ANU Law Students for Refugees, which formed this year. Our Facebook page continued to have a significant reach and positive reception. This page is a central factor behind our high-profile name and reputation on campus.
Our weaknesses are also clear. We struggled to get new activists involved beyond a casual level and integrate them into the organisation. Even those who threw themselves into activity gradually withdrew as the year went on. While one of our goals was to maintain personal engagement with new activists throughout the year, we were not able to achieve this, which likely contributed to the ‘dropping out’ rate. This relates to a second problem. Our core group of activists is declining and they are not being replaced by new people, which leaves too much work to those still involved. Consequently, we lost track of central tasks like following up on sign-ups, organising meetings and booking rooms. Without replacements in this core group, our capacity will be severely diminished next year.
Considering these strengths and weaknesses, it appears ANU RAC will need to focus on rebuilding and integrating new people into the organisation by following up personally with new students and building strong connections between members. We will also need a committed group of students who are able to keep track of the organisation and maintain responsibility for weekly meetings, event planning and following up with new students. This could take the form of a small steering committee involving both new and old members.
RAC Organisation – Building and maintaining structure
There can be no effective strategy without troops to carry it out. That means that the structure of RAC has to be built in such a way that people can fit into it and carry out meaningful activity. Our working group structure is a crucial part of this. It means that people from a faith-based, uni, unionist, rainbow or other background can work within their own constituencies as well as contribute to the overall campaign. In addition, there are many other roles – organising flyer, poster or corflute roll-outs is essential. So too is entering names and details of those who sign up, doing social media, the website and dozens of other organising tasks.
A social movement such as ours inevitably has a degree of churn as activitists move on to other things, move cities, etc. We have to constantly find new people to replace them. The Steering Committee has had a fairly high degree of turnover during the last year and needs volunteers. Similarly, we have had several attempts to set up a social media/website/creative group which have lasted for a time and then collapsed. The ANU RAC group started 2018 very well with over 300 people joining during O-week and a number of good events. But by the end of the year it was struggling without a core coordinating group planning activities. We haven’t succeeded in re-establishing a school students group despite the obvious potential in that area. Our social media presence is fairly poor. All of these things – and many more – need to be done as part of the build-up to Palm Sunday.
This has been a very long campaign. Despite the shift in the population and in parliament in our direction, there is a certain degree of weariness amongst some of the activists who have been involved for years. As a result, we haven’t had the resources to do a number of things we’d hoped for – such as the “Refugee Awareness Speaking Tour” we had planned. There are two solutions to this weariness. The first is to emphasise – as we have above – that this is the most crucial turning point on the issue for many years and that now is the most important time to be involved. The second is to draw new activists into the campaign. The latter is something we are both good and bad at. We are good at getting people to sign up at events – with nearly 5,000 now on our list – well over 1% of the ACT population. But we are not so good at individually talking to people who do show up or do get involved in some way about how they might be involved in the longer term or in a more active way.
In drawing people into the campaign one of the important things many of us have discovered in this campaign is that our kind of participatory social activism is not all dour, hard work. When people think of politics, they quite often think of the squabbling and games of parliament, careerism etc. Our activist politics is very different. It creates a new activist community, and makes connections between many people from different walks of life who otherwise would have no contact. It challenges us to find new, creative ways of organising and campaigning. As the American writer and activist, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote:
Perhaps the best-kept political secret of our time is that politics, as a democratic undertaking, can be not only “fun”, in the entertaining sense, but profoundly uplifting, even ecstatic.
We have the following recommendations and encourage people to think of others:
- Palm Sunday 2019 will be the key focus of our activity from now until it is held.
- Our theme will be something like “No More” (or “Time’s Up etc) and emphasis that 2019 is the year to get rid of offshore detention.
- Appeal again for new blood on the Steering Committee.
- Establish a small group to contact activists or potential activists to talk to them about deeper involvement.
- Establish an ongoing social media/web group.
- Try again to establish a school students group.
- Establish a core organising group (a mini Steering Committee) at ANU and UC.