Going quiet won’t Bring Them Here – a response to Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne and John Menadue 0

Any compromise with cruelty by the refugee movement would lead us further from a solution, not closer to it.

Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, John Menadue, recently argued in Fairfax papers that there are two problems standing in the way of a solution to the indefinite detention of those on Manus and Nauru. One is the government, and the other is the refugee movement.

But really there is one main problem, the government’s refugee policies. The refugee movement is not stopping the Coalition from closing the camps. The fate of those on Manus and Nauru is in their hands.

The strategy of the four writers boils down to an argument that [by the refugee movement going quiet] we may get the government to accept a compromise if they can be convinced that getting people off Nauru and Manus won’t lead to more boats arriving. But this misunderstands the politics.

If the Coalition wanted compromise they could come up with it on their own. They don’t want a compromise so long as they think that offshore processing is politically advantageous for them. Witness Dutton’s attempts to step up refugee bashing at the last election. That it didn’t work, and that alternatives to offshore processing are now getting a hearing is because the refugee movement has fought the Coalition to a standstill on this issue. The movement has been able to shift public opinion precisely because it stood its ground on refugee rights, such as the international right to seek asylum by any means of arrival. Ceding some refugee rights can never help win others.

Offering unnecessary compromises now, would risk derailing our momentum.

The compromise suggested by the four would leave the essential elements of the government’s offshore regime in place; not only does it accept turnbacks, but any boat that did arrive in Australia would still be liable to be sent to Nauru. That is not a compromise that the refugee movement could accept.

Offering compromises is not a new idea. Welcome to Australia director Brad Chilcott argued last year for ‘possiblity before protest’; saying that the ALP had to accept boat turnbacks in order to achieve realistic change. But Labor’s acceptance of turnbacks, over significant internal opposition, has not brought change at all. We would be in a much stronger position if Labor leader Bill Shorten was prepared to argue to shut Manus and Nauru for good.

Paris Aristotle argued strongly for compromise when he was part of the Labor government’s Expert Panel in 2013. “We just have to be prepared to come out of our trenches” he said, and that refugees would only be on Nauru and Manus for “a couple of years” while an “orderly regional process” was created. The reality is that Manus and Nauru is the “regional process” and his capitulation re-opened the way for the horrors of offshore processing. Even he is now calling to end the suffering on Manus and Nauru.

Shifting opinion

The refugee movement is growing, 20,000 rallied to close Manus and Nauru in Melbourne on Palm Sunday this year. Public opinion is shifting. An Essential Poll in February 2016 in the wake of the Let Them Stay Campaign found 40% of people in favour, to 39% against, of letting vulnerable asylum seekers stay. This is a shift from the 30% that pro-asylum sentiment has hovered around for a decade. Then an Australia Institute poll in June 2016 found that only 27% of people thought refugees on Manus and Nauru should never come to Australia. 63% thought they should ultimately be brought to Australia (even though 35% thought they should be processed offshore first).

Public opinion never stands still, there is an ongoing fight for it. Turnbull’s attempts to smear refugees as potential terrorists, and Dutton’s attempts to smear refugees as simultaneously taking jobs and languishing on dole queues, are attempts to push public opinion against refugees. Compromising with any aspect of the Coalition’s cruelty package only makes their job easier by ceding them political ground.

Importantly the refugee movement’s stand has led to cracks appearing in the Labor party. 40% of ALP National Conference opposed boat turnbacks. The Australian newspaper reports that 21 MPs openly oppose the parties’ current policies such as boat turnbacks and offshore processing. Offering up compromise would weaken the stand those MPs have taken. Instead we need to widen the cracks.

Even Opposition leader Bill Shorten has been forced to shift his rhetoric around Manus and Nauru, to now call for an end to indefinite detention. However his calls for third country resettlement still lets Turnbull off the hook, and leaves all the elements of Fortress Australia logic in place.

Mistakes of the Rudd-Gillard Era

The movement similarly shifted public opinion from 2001 to 2004, when those who thought that boats should be allowed to land went from 47 percent to 61 percent according to Newspolls. Kevin Rudd won the election in 2007 with policy promising to end offshore processing. Labor then panicked when the boats started to arrive in greater numbers, because the party had never been broken from policies of deterrence.

Labor got away with its backflip, in part, because sections of the refugee movement had gone quiet when Howard released children from detention and believed a Labor government would bring humanitarian change. The movement must not make that mistake again.

Until we break the idea that deterrence is a solution and that boat arrivals are a problem, the door will always remain open to the cruelty of offshore processing.

Deaths at sea – who is really responsible?

The four writers also fall back on the “deaths at sea” argument. But it is not asylum friendly policies that make deaths at sea more likely. Rather it is the cruel politics from the top, which criminalised people smuggling and set the scene for negligently slow, or no, rescues.

The WA coroner’s court found that 16 distress calls from SIEV 358 were ignored by Australian authorities for two days, 102 people drowned. Australian Navy personnel allege they were instructed by Canberra at times not to rescue boats.

Boat turnbacks of Rohingya refugees by neighbouring countries following Australia’s lead have led to 370 deaths according to the UN, and ‘maybe thousands’ according to Amnesty International. Many of the Rohingya died of dehydration at sea because they were not allowed to land.As long as we are surrounded by war and water, people will come by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

The alternative to deaths at sea is not offshore processing or boat turnbacks. Rather it is decriminalising people smuggling and rescuing asylum boats instead of turning them back. It is ending the ban on taking refugees from Indonesia, and allowing those refugees to fly here.

Strategy

The shift in public opinion and the growing pressure on the government has come about because there has not been a compromise. We need to keep up the calls to Bring Them Here. We need an Australian solution rather than one that bullies and bribes poorer regional neighbours.

Manus is already closing – people can no longer be sent there even if the government has not yet agreed to bring the refugees here. The Bring Them Here campaign will need the same spirit of defiance as the Let them Stay campaign. We need to encourage the kinds of actions that saw doctors refuse to release baby Asha back into detention; action that was backed with a union-coordinated blockade in support. As a result well over 300 vulnerable asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru are still in Australia, despite the law saying they can be removed.

Similarly we need to champion the teachers’ strike action that helped win the release of their detained student asylum seeker, Mojgan Shamsalipoor. We need to keep building the mass rallies so that people who take such actions, or leak files, can be confident of support.

We can change what is politically possible by further deepening the reach of the movement beyond those who already agree with us. But we can’t do that by agreeing with parts of the Coalition’s cruelty. Instead we need to argue that the boats must be welcomed, that all the camps must be closed, and the refugees permanently resettled here.