Solidarity is an idea that is in the foundations of the ALP, writes Tim Curtis, and that means sticking together to fight for the common goals.
This weekend, as did many others I presume, I engaged in some Bill-hating as the ALP conference decided to support a boat-turn-back policy.
As I thought about this I was struck by a question: If I was so concerned with boat-turn-backs, why had I not joined the ALP? And then attended the conference so that my vote, my voice could have made a difference. How could I deservedly be annoyed at a group of people who I had tasked with representing me, when I had taken no direct action beyond writing some letters to make my apparently strongly held view known (contrary to populist belief Facebook and online petitions do not count).
As my self-righteous indignation began to subside I wondered to myself … “I wonder”, I wondered, “is this how Cory Bernadi feels when he doesn’t get his way on abortion?”
It has to be noted that Bernardi, and many others on the lunatic fringe of right-wing politics are rarely seen complaining in public that their particular policy wishes have not been taken on as central party platforms.
Instead he and others fall in line behind the mainstream neo-liberals and conservatives to show a solid front. When there is opportunity, Bernardi flies his freak flag high; but even then there is a definite sense that it is part of a larger design, that the timing of his “outbursts” are to draw away from something else, or to otherwise push the conversation further to where the neo-conservatives want them.
This led to a very uncomfortable thought. The thought that the success of the Right in taking government, and in dictating the terms under which progressive governments operated, and ultimately in controlling the narrative on the economy, immigration, defence and security, came from their unity: The Solidarity of the political Right. It sounds contradictory, and yet when do we see the hard-line neo-liberal voters moaning and complaining that job creators are still being overtaxed in the same way that refugee advocates attack their party of choice on a regular basis? And make no mistake; for the true-blood neo-liberal a completely unshackled market attracts just as much fervour on the Right as social justice does on the Left.
The discomfort does not stop there. At the ALP conference there was strong support for renewable energy and for marriage equality. Why not add refugee advocacy and make it triple-threat?
For the simple reason that it is an election loser.
Right now the ALP has a sure winner in marriage equality. It is also on a winner with renewables; it can co-opt many country and farming votes who feel betrayed by the National party on mining and CSG. It can also pitch action on climate change as means of supporting the expansion of Australia’s renewable energy industry, in turn as a means of rebuilding the shattered manufacturing sector in Australia. This is a pro-job platform that will resonate well in town and country and is sure to be a popular idea amongst all those ex-car industry workers and car-part service businesses and smart manufacturing in general across the nation.
Refugees, or boat people as they are known in the tabloids, have no such sympathies. Gone are the Post-Vietnam days where Australians felt responsible, felt culpable for the dire straits that South-East Asian refugees found themselves in after the fall of Saigon. Refugees from Afghanistan or the Arabian Peninsula, fleeing the mess that we in no small part took a hand in creating, are perhaps not as cuddly. Or maybe Australia has become hardened to the hardships of others because ‘we have our own problems’. Unemployment is up, wages are down, the rich get richer, and our great outdoors seems to be up for grabs to any foreign interest with enough cash to open a politician’s pocket.
Whatever the reasons: If the ALP attempted to go to the next election with a new refugee policy it would lose. There is no one who can honestly look at the untrammelled hysteria in political discourse in Australia and say otherwise.
What the ALP can do is the same thing that Tony Abbott has done: make promises, and then … when in power … change the conversation. Look at what Tony Abbott has achieved with countless NBN and ABC inquiries, Royal commissions, the Commission of Audit, and reviews into anything that can possibly change attitudes and direct the conversation.
Imagine how the public view would change after a parliamentary inquiry into refugee policy and into conditions on Manus Island? Complete hard-nosed analysis of the costs to tax-payers, with heart-warming stories about asylum seekers who have saved country towns from oblivion, and heart-breaking stories about how the Taliban came only hours after the Aussie soldiers had flown away home. These are things that can only happen from inside government.
There are many, including myself, who have had a lesson in realpolitik this weekend. As much as anyone in the ALP wants to change the policies toward Australia’s treatment of refugees, they all know that it is a guaranteed way to lose the next election. And despite what many might be saying about The Greens, it is fairly clear that after the last Federal and State elections, and in particular the election in Liverpool Plains, that The Greens are unlikely to be able to field enough candidates or win enough votes to form government alone, and almost certainly will not be able to win in the areas that the ALP need to win to swing the Liberal-National Coalition out of government.
So where does this leave us?
Sad. Angry. Yes, and more. Though I am more saddened by how quickly the level of conversation in Australia has returned to the bad old days of the Yellow Peril, and I am more angry at myself for being so hopefully naïve that Tony Abbott could lose an election with this issue on the table, when in reality it is likely that it would help him retain office in a sequel to Tampa.
What comes next is possibly even harder. I am still dedicated to changing Australia’s Refugee policy, but I now realise that is going to take time. Time to change the way people think so that tabloid radio, television and newspapers, and more importantly their readers are no longer interested in demonising refugees. And the longer that Tony Abbott and his ilk are in power, the longer it is going to take to drag Australia from the precipice of fear and loathing and back into the light. This means that while I will still hold to my beliefs, while I will still critique, I will also get behind the torches that we do have; marriage equality and action on climate change and do everything I can to get a government that will take action on the big social and economic issues. Because if I do not, then Tony Abbott will likely be re-elected and keep selling off public assets, keep selling out to corporate interests, and keep selling us all up the river with a co-payment for the a paddle.
Solidarity is an idea that is in the foundations of the ALP. Solidarity doesn’t mean that we always agree with each other. Indeed nor should we. What it does mean is that we stick together to fight for the common goals, and to forward our personal or factional goals as much as possible. All the while keeping our eye on the big picture, on the greater goal; of regaining an Australia that is the land of the fair go and where we truly do have boundless plains to share.