Is compromise a dirty word? My Labor for Refugees experience

Last night I attended a Labor For Refugees event, hosted by the Refugee Action Committee at ANU. That there were over 100 people in attendance, an admirably showing for a mid-week forum. Yet I felt a great sense of disappointment. I fail to see how Labor for Refugees will effect positive change and am mortified by some of the very ugly messages heard.

First is the notion of compromise. I would summarise the policy position of the refugee movement as; onshore processing, permanent visas, replacing mandatory detention with community living, de-linking asylum seekers from the humanitarian program, as well as raising the number of humanitarian refugees Australia accepts. We are so far from this set of options. Therefore, its critical to find points of compromise to slowly begin the process of change.

I heard none of this. I asked a question about where the speakers thought there could be compromise and I didn’t receive a single straight response. I heard violent rhetoric about John Howard, Tony Abbott and Chris Bowen. I heard cliches about scare campaigns. But I didn’t heard compromise. Personally, I believe the longer term objective should be to raise the humanitarian program substantially while implementing a deep, broad regional framework. I didn’t feel there was much support for this in the room. I was even told these ‘solutions’ were promoted by the ALP in the immediate past because they simply didn’t know what else to do, inferring elected politicians don’t really care about boat drownings. How quickly we forget that the period of asylum policy under Malcolm Fraser was built on a bedrock of regional cooperation. Boats were not an optimal occurrence, even in 1982.

Instead of compromise, we heard other ideas. “Cut immigration to 100,000 and accept 100,000 refugees”, “The Houston Review was a load of baloney”, “Regional solutions are just about stopping the boats, a distraction”. I should of been disgusted and angry, but instead I could only shake my head.

Further, there was a strong belief the Australian people have been hoodwinked by a wicked media and devilish politicians.

‘People have been manipulated by the stop the boats message’

This could not be further from the truth. Thankfully, one speaker rose above this and commented on the way the advocacy movement had a tendency for one way communication which limited the ability to reach the people who ought to be targeted. The comment, ‘our asylum debate takes the place of a real policy debate’ I believe to be far more accurate and was well said. Thank you Yvette Berry.

Perhaps most disappointing was the contempt for other migrants, expressed by both a speaker and a person asking a question. When you think the way to “win” this debate is to ask people to compare refugees vs. 457 visas vs. backpackers, you’ve already lost. Not only was this said, it was a “key fact”, something to lead the way forward in discussions with other people on asylum seekers. Just for good measure, we were told of the “wave of Chinese workers” about to descend on Australia. It was hard to believe I was in the 21st century.

Replacing the fear of one migrant with another is to enter a never ending abyss of hatred. Admittedly, this sentiment was questioned. But it was a strong presence in the room and finds institutional support elsewhere in the refugee advocacy movement.

Finally, many of the speakers and audience members spoke of their optimism. I was told a turning point was coming, leading to significant social change. Given where we find ourselves as a nation on asylum policy combined with an intolerance to compromise (perhaps best epitomised by the Malaysia solution, opposed by both the current government and the Greens), I don’t understand this sense of optimism. Rallies and speeches do not a movement make.

It is undoubtedly true it is easier to demonise the vulnerable yet this is not an excuse to ignore a way forward. There is no tipping point in this debate. There is only a long, hard road to change.

7 thoughts on “Is compromise a dirty word? My Labor for Refugees experience

  1. Thanks for your comment Brenton. I’ve read that in the past, a good read.

    I wasn’t sure if this particular event was completely representative of L4R which is why I didn’t list any names. Perhaps its a much broader movement but obviously, I wasn’t super impressed about what I saw and heard. I think as a movement, we all need to constantly think harder about these issues as combating the simple government narrative is anything but easy.

  2. Absolutely re your last point. In it’s current form, L4R is actually hindering policy action in this important policy area and I think the group needs a complete overhaul in both its approach to policy and how it chooses to engage with rank and file members and the Party as a whole.

    I am a member of a Victorian Labor Policy committee, the Commonwealth and Federal Relations committeee who I am pleased to say are doing some important work to contribute to national policy and will be making a full submission to the National Policy Forum on a new draft of the National Platform on this topic as well as other national and international policy matters.

  3. Lol, given that L4R ACT had their FIRST meeting, in about 8 years, tonight .. i find it astounding that someone from Victoria is so ‘in the know’ about our plans/objectives/aspirations etc.

    1. Hi Olija/ I wasn’t aware this was L4R first meeting in that period. I completely understand the group may have many opinions and policy positions within it, however what I heard was not a positive message or particularly constructive. I hope I’m wrong. Perhaps it takes sometime to organise and incorporate other voices also.

  4. I found your blog via a search on Senator Sam Dastyari and found your ‘re-appraisal’ post of him from December. Then found this one.

    I’d like to express a degree of gratification that you attended such a meeting at all. I agree, proper balanced policy debate has been replaced by sound byte rhetoric in ways that doesn’t improve the chances of any real change at all.

    In terms of Sam himself have you been following coverage of his speech to mark the Iranian new year festival of Nowruz in the last few days??

    An original post of the text of the SMH article contained these sentences as a conclusion….

    “Senator Dastyari said five principles should underpin the offshore processing regime if it is to continue – greater transparency in the form of open access to offshore processing facilities, fair access to legal assistance, faster processing and improved care for asylum seekers.
    Most significantly, Senator Dastyari has called for an independent review of every asylum seeker case by the refugee tribunal.”

    I think this could be a possible framework of compromise in this policy area….even taking into account the speeches source.

    I’m looking for a place to find the full text of his speech.

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment.

      I agree Dastyari’s comments are encouraging. Transparency is important as is legal assistance and faster processing. One of the most difficult things at present is the lack of processing which is occurring on Manus, which likely contributes to unrest.

      I’ve written previously that one can agree regional processing is the ‘least-worse’ policy approach at present, however this does not mean Manus Island is the only way forward. An expanded regional approach, with heavy involvement from the UNHCR would be a welcome step forward along with the principles Dastyari presented.

      You’ll probably be able to find his speech on his website from early next week I’d guess.

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