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Jul 24, 2013

PNG deal will save Labor -- and end it as we know it

Labor took the only deal it could to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea. But this is now a party divorced from its past, sailing against the tide that carried it this far.

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In 1966, a Labor politician got up and described the Vietnam War as a “racist, criminal, genocidal” attack by the United States on a small nation. But it wasn’t Gough Whitlam, whose opposition to Vietnam was late-blooming. It was Arthur Calwell, damned by history as a racist. Calwell by and large wasn’t, in the pernicious sense we associate with the term — he simply continued to believe ideas of racial separateness that had been abroad in the early 20th century, subscribed to by almost everyone. Calwell understood the Vietnam War could only be waged through a contempt for the humanity of the Vietnamese. He was no wild leftie, had no time for communists, and he was from the rather proper Catholic side of the party — but he understood how power and humanity was often at odds.

Calwell’s stand on Vietnam — it cost Labor the 1966 election, and helped provoke an assassination attempt against him — reminds us that Labor is a far more complex beast than the received histories will acknowledge. Labor’s sense that it was part of a global struggle didn’t begin with the chucking out of the White Australian Policy in the 1960s; beneath that policy was still the idea of a universal struggle for justice and equality, even if it was seen as a struggle by separate peoples. Australian Labor’s shattering rise to power in the early 1900s, its world-leading role, could not have occurred if it was a merely sectional party, if it had no idea other than narrow advancement.

It has split and recombined several times; in Billy Hughes it had a figure who had more in common with Mussolini than with Methodism. But it has never fully lost that progressive impetus, even as the class it represented changed from a bare proletariat to a prosperous working middle class. Now that class has been further split into winners and losers — by the super bonanza, the housing bubble, the Norway-style rocketing prices — and by those mechanisms has been split against itself.

Labor got this process underway in the Keating years, and assumed it would retain the loyalty of its social base, while giving it access to the sort of individualised prosperity the bourgeoisie enjoyed. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, while the Liberals and now the Greens have retained an ideology and a class base, Labor has voluntarily liquidated its own. Rather than reinvent the notion of a life together, in which individualism played a role but did not determine how we lived, Labor has conceded the ideological field to its opponents, putting individualism at the root of social life.

It has thus set itself the exhausting task of having to round up a significant section of its vote afresh at each election. Queensland-style collapses appear far more likely to afflict Labor than any other party in the near future. Added to these difficulties is the fact that this atomised prosperity has made many people feel less secure, free and happy than they did decades ago, when lives were more modest, but not weighed down with student debt, mortgage debt, beset by fragmented labour markets, etc. This effect has been so remarkable that it has been dubbed “the Australian paradox”, the subject of a huge volume of debate around the world over the past few years, very little of it reported on in Australia. It has made it tempting for Labor to cut the final links with any sort of universalist notion of humanity, and become a part that is no more than a client of shifting interests, as outlined in Chris Bowen’s long suicide note for the party, recently issued in book form.

The Papua New Guinea asylum seekers deal — “solution” as a descriptor manages to be both sinister and inaccurate — is a mark of that. It is the logical conclusion to Labor’s failure to tackle the issue head-on in 2007, by expanding refugee “processing” facilities so that there would be no newsworthy bottlenecks, while re-emphasising ethical and treaty obligations, and the relatively small numbers involved. That was always going to be a tough sell, especially as the refugee route mostly involves a flight to Djarkarta, hardly in keeping with the image of tired, huddled masses climbing across mountains, etc.

“In a period in which it has been more imperative than ever to work out why the party exists and what it is for, it has launched something that is, at its heart, nihilistic …”

But there was really no other alternative if Labor was to remain the party it had once been, with a claim to be the natural, and expansive, home of the broad progressive forces. The Liberals, it was thought, could always out-xenophobe Labor. It was inevitable that a piecemeal implementation of this and that solution, measure, etc, of 457 visas and so on, would only serve to make Labor look inept and imitation-xenophobes a poor substitute for the real thing. Even better/worse, such ineptitude made the Liberals’ cruelty look humane, by being decisive and solidly implemented. The PNG deal — with its breathtaking denial of any possibility that people might escape to a peaceful and prosperous land, its denial of hope — is both the only political solution Labor could now make, but also the one act that finally cuts it off from its past, from even a vestigial granting of a common humanity to people who, for many different reasons, come in boats.

The PNG is of course, an enhanced Pacific “solution”, since most will simply be transferred to Manus Island. Beyond that it has the makings of a moral, political, geostrategic disaster, you name it. PNG is broke, politically fragmented and very poor. The police force and other services are as corrupt and brutal as such forces are in any poor country, where bribes are a necessity. There is no guarantee that we will foot the bill should the process of refugee assessment continue on, or the government change hands and reject the deal, leaving thousands in limbo, or a dozen other scenarios. We can be certain that we have consigned numerous people to death, to deaths that would otherwise not occur, by making this deal.

Should they get refugee status, they will be abroad in what is really only a quasi-state, stamped on a territory which encompasses the most complex web of complex kinship societies in the world. With the exception of a small part of the south, you can’t just turn up in PNG and become part of it. Quite possibly, there may be unintended consequences. In the 1930s, Trujillo, the murderous Dominican Republic dictator, was the only one who would allow mass Jewish immigration from Europe (our Sir Robert, something of a fan of Hitler’s Germany, fell short). By the time the 5000 or so Jews who had settled there finally made it to New York and Miami they had created a town, Sosua, that is now the country’s resort hub.

Maybe there will be a similar PNG effect. But that also points to other possible effects. Given the stated concern about boat arrivals has always been the “terrorists in their midst”, a lot of people on the Right seem curiously comfortable and relaxed about sending some fairly sharp people to a troubled state. Wasn’t that the sort of conjunction we’ve been trying to avoid? But of course such concerns always masked a more primal, and strategic, politics of fear.And all this is supposing those consigned to PNG consent to staying there. A glance at the map will show PNG might be a lot better launching place, by way of the Torres Strait Islands, to get back to Oz than Indonesia is. Will this mean some mad and lethal cat-and-mouse game in two, three, four years time? Inevitably, if the past is anything to go by. The boats have not stopped coming, despite the revival of the Pacific Solution. It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that they will now.

The manifold absurdities of the policy are like salt air on our hull; we are corroding our own vessel in an attempt to reach some illusory safety. Some parts are rusting faster than others, and Labor is one of them. It has restored its standing in the broad middle, but its advocates fantasise about once again becoming the broad party that represents all progressive aspiration. Such appears to be the subject of Bowen’s slim book, and Kim Il-Carr’s even slimmer one (the larger the Laborite, the slimmer the book; MUP will be releasing a single haiku by David Feeney any day now). Now that they have reached the ultimate point of their kludged refugee policy — the denial, not merely of rights, but of human recognition to boat arrivals, the unwillingness to hear someone’s account of their reasons for being and doing — that reclamation is unlikely to happen.

This act rescinds not merely some of the progressive reconstruction of the party in the 1960s, but something of the spirit in which the party was formed in the 1890s. They are unwilling to admit that, just as they are unwilling to admit the Greens will be able to consolidate their vote and base from this decisive act, because deep down many remain wedded to a fantasy image of the party, a sort of super-Whitlamite fetish object. The more it departs from that, the more insistent the fantasy becomes. The more likely it looks that the Greens will be around as a permanent feature of the system, the more their real existence must be denied, through all this bullshit about liberal elites, unAustralians, blah blah blah.

Bowen’s argument, in the suicide note, is that Labor should build the country up as a high-tech, growth-oriented, value-added producer, that Labor should never govern with the Greens, and that it should reopen its doors as a “big-tent” party, for all to be represented. Yet it is obvious that what builds the Green vote is exactly that process, because it adds to the culture/knowledge producer class from which the Greens draw their support. The PNG deal gives the Greens scope to get to the next step in their political process, a pretty arduous one it must be said; to emphasis that the universal humanism which Labor has forsaken resides with them, to work actively to detach and appropriate, or at least neutralise those leftish Labor Party members who are dismayed and heartbroken by the PNG deal.

Labor may or may not prosper in the short term from the refugee process it has made itself a party to over these years, even supposing the policy holds together at all over the coming weeks and months. What is certain is that it has not heard the last of it. In a period in which it has been more imperative than ever to work out why the party exists and what it is for, it has launched something that is, at its heart, nihilistic — racist and criminal as the man said.

It’s a pretty leaky boat in which to sail against a current, one you’ve sailed with for your whole existence.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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49 thoughts on “PNG deal will save Labor — and end it as we know it

  1. Hunt Ian

    Guy, you are right to say that the ALP has gone for neo-liberalism, which began with Hawke and Keating, and forgotten the ideal of supporting the collective side of our social life. However, you seem plain wrong about the PNG policy.
    I conditionally support Kevin Rudd’s announcement on change of asylum seeker policy. I have been uneasy about the more than 1100 asylum seekers who have drowned on people smuggler boats and the fact that all our increased quota of refugees come from those willing to pay people smugglers. I am therefore happy about a policy that has a chance of ensuring that our future intake will be from asylum seekers who have UNHCR recognition as refugees in various places around the world.

    I am concerned, however, about the asylum seekers who have unwittingly walked into an unexpected situation and now find that they will not be resettled in Australia because they attempted to seek asylum in Australia by travelling by boat to Australian territory. I have no objection in principle to granting asylum to people who come to Australia by boat but I think that the deaths at sea mean we now have to say that people must apply for asylum in Australia by other means.

    However, I think you should use diplomatic channels to persuade other countries, such as Canada and the US, to consider taking asylum seekers who have unwittingly found themselves ineligible for resettlement in Australia.

    I also think that Australia should increase its aid to our former colony, Papua New Guinea, so that it can take a path of development that will provide asylum seekers, who unwitting put themselves in a position where they cannot be resettled in Australia, and who cannot be resettled in other countries, with resettlement in PNG in conditions where they can get on with their lives in peace.

    There will also be a difficult problem with people who take the risk because people smugglers have assured them that this scheme will not work and cite Tony Abbott’s new statements of opposition to it. The government should consider advertising that makes it clear that whatever the outcome of the election, there is no point in getting on boats to seek asylum in Australia and should make a promise that once the number of boat arrivals falls, our intake will be increased, to encourage asylum seekers to think that they can get to Australia (or other resettlement countries) by going through the UHNCR in transit countries

  2. Timmy O'Toole

    Rundle seems to rest so much on the legitimacy of the Greens as a left wing political party. They undoubtedly are a left wing political party and a class based one (albeit their class is firmly middle-middle class) as Rundle says. But at 10% of the vote (if that) they are no model for a successful political party that has any chance of implementing an agenda.

    Rundle should realise that the Greens, to become a major party (say of more than 20% of the vote, like the Lib-Dems in the UK once were) would need to look more like the ALP. And to become a major party that replaces the ALP, as is their intention, would essentially need to be the ALP in their policies. I am speaking broadly- not saying every policy would be the same, including on refugees- but they would need to temper their economic vandalism to be successful in implemeting social policy (i.e. their redistributive policy, energy policy etc) and would thus end up as compromised and gradualist as Labor.

    As Orwell said, “Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.”

    Finally, Rudd wants to increase the refugee quote to about 27,000 people. They will come from camps. The conditions of these camps will be as bad as Manus. Is this inhumane? Or would you prefer 13,000 self selecting people from boats, plus or minus a few thousand that die on the way. The selection criteria being whether they can afford a boat trip.

    The left needs to stop pretending there is a clear moral absolute on this issue. Manus is inhumane; so are people drowning; so are people living in camps overseas who do not get an opportunity to come to Australia because they cannot afford to take a boat.

    Life is messy.

  3. el tel

    It is interesting to go over to The Guardian to see the logical end-point that the “universal humanism” advocated here leads to, which is open borders for all.


    I would be very interested to see where this position sits alongside the sustainability agendas that the Greens have been associated with. I would think that feeding, housing and employing a massively increased population would point to a less ecologically balanced economy that I would have thought the Greens would be comfortable with.

  4. CML

    Guy – You have become just another apologist for the Greens, although perhaps you always have been. I agree with TT’s comments @#16 – the Greens will never be more than a protest movement, because they don’t represent anywhere near enough of the Oz population to be relevant in the governing of this country. Thank goodness! Over time they will disintegrate and hopefully disappear, just as the Democrats before them.
    I am also heartily sick of you and your ilk calling everyone racist, inhumane or whatever. Along with many others who contribute to the various discussions on Crikey, I don’t have a problem with our refugee intake, and hope it is increased in the future. But I very much resent the so-called boat-people self selecting their country of refuge because they have money to buy a seat on a boat. And the
    Green’s position of ‘selective compassion’ for this group ONLY, has never made any sense to me. I am much more interested in Australia taking refugees from the ‘non-existent’ queue. You know, those people who have been sitting in camps all around the world waiting for decades to be resettled. The Green’s attitude to these people is to me inhumane, cruel and dismissive.
    So don’t lecture me, and people like me, who are not racist but just want to see the Aussie fair go applied to all – not just those with money! With the Labor party policy of stopping the boats by diplomatic means, and increasing the humanitarian intake to 27,000, perhaps we will see a fairer outcome in the years ahead. I certainly hope so.

  5. Scott Grant

    In reply to Warren Joffe @32, the document I used for asylum seekers, from the department, is http://www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/asylum/_files/asylum-trends-aus-annual-2011-12.pdf

    It would appear that the primary acceptance rate (ie excluding appeals, etc) from China was 9.7%, from Pakistan 40.3 % and India does not appear in the table, from which I infer a very small acceptance rate. Reasons for seeking asylum are not discussed in this document.

  6. Warren Joffe

    @ CML

    Your wish to do something for refugees I acknowledge but would you not see us as doing more good than current policies provide for if we used the same money (including all the flow-ons from accepting people who have no valuable skills and are culturally a long way from integration) to employ local people, including refugees but not only them, in the countries of first asylum to build facilities for education and health care and to provide those services with a view, as first objective, to prepare the refugees for a better life back in the countries of their birth and culture once stability is restored?

    For those, perhaps like 40 million Copts in Egypt or Christian or other minority communities in Syria, for whom return to a near permanently dystopian country may be the nightmare come true if we insist on that possibility, what do we do? Surely we don’t farm out selection to UN employees but do it for ourselves using the criterion of Australian self-interest in choosing employable potentially net taxpaying people or other with obvious promise and prima facie cultural compatibility. What do you think? Why bring an unhappy handful of culturally incompatibles out of the millions of refugees when we could do better for them and for ourselves with the same choice to spend money on policy in that area rather than, say, better aged care here for existing citizens? And why offer citizenship so readily? You and I might not be affected but there are a large number of Australians for whom the dilution of their voting power and of the pot of money available for transfer payments to them by the unnecessary addition of culturally and linguistically foreign people with little to contribute to the economy as their fellow citizens is objectively unfair, imposed on them de haut en bas by those of us who can afford to be bien pensant. Because we had already stumbled into diversity and prosperous multi-culturalism we haven’t, by and large, (with some Sydney exceptions), suffered the shock that those once nice social democrat Scandinavians have as they find themselves not so good at dealing with the cultural clashes occasioned by misplaced generosity in their refugee intakes. Why take on extra degrees of difficulty for no reward and no good done to anyone other than those few who are by chance accepted for the equivalent of a lottery win?

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