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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey