Do progressives need to step backward to finally make some progress?

It’s a question raised by the ever-increasing harshness of asylum seeker policy — and, of course, by the ongoing failure of the refugee movement to gain traction.

Brad Chilcott from the group Welcome to Australia argues that Labor needs to back so-called boat “turn-backs”, on the basis that if it doesn’t, Tony Abbott will enjoy a “free kick” on refugee policy — and refugee advocates will be completely stymied.

“It’s time for us to focus on making life better for all the people we really care about and focusing our attention on achievable change,” he told New Matilda.

Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton takes the argument further. Noting the urgency of the global warming emergency, he asks: “Must child refugees remain incarcerated and brutalised if Australia is to return to a sensible climate policy?”

The answer, he suggests, is yes. “It is no longer likely that the two goals of climate protection and a compassionate refugee policy can be met by electing a government both humane and serious about global warming.”

It’s a bleak assessment, as Hamilton acknowledges. But is it correct? Must we really embrace the bad to fend off the worse? Must we concede ground on one issue to gain on another?

One immediate response comes from the old joke in which the Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “I guess it’s all over. We’re surrounded by hostile Indians.”

Tonto replies: “Who’s we, white man?”

The quip reminds us of a point often forgotten in these debates: simply, whatever progressives on the mainland do, asylum seekers will continue to fight. No one seriously expects a refugee family to accept, say, sexual abuse in Nauru on the basis that, if they protest, they’ll keep Bill Shorten out of the Lodge. Demonstrations will take place in the camps and elsewhere, simply because the people most directly affected by refugee policy have no other choice.

So it’s not simply a matter of keeping schtum about the worst excesses of the border security regime. What happens during the next round of hunger strikes and lip sewing and rooftop protests? A Labor government re-elected on the basis Chilcott and Hamilton suggest will, of necessity, have to break such resistance. Are progressives prepared to support that?

Underlying the arguments about the necessity for a retreat is a despair about winning public support for unpopular ideas. That’s understandable. Nonetheless, it’s worth comparing the pessimism around refugee activism with the increasing sense of inevitability about same-sex marriage, a cause that, not so very long ago, seemed utterly marginal.

These days, with Bill Shorten scrambling to get his name on a marriage equality proposal, it’s easy to forget that, as recently as 2004, Labor supported John Howard’s Marriage Amendment Bill and its definition of matrimony as exclusively heterosexual. If we go back further than that, the notion that two men might be married in Australia would have seemed fantastical — and so, too, would the idea of a government outsourcing refugee processing to a remote facility in Papua New Guinea.

To put it another way, same-sex marriage was once electoral poison. If it’s a vote winner today, that’s because activists didn’t throw in the towel but persisted with a long and bitter struggle.

Common sense holds that, if we give up on one issue, we’ll be better placed to fight elsewhere. But politics doesn’t work like that. Conservatives will not respond to a progressive retreat on refugees by deciding that, in return, they back off on climate policy. On the contrary, they’ll be encouraged to go on the offensive more broadly. Why wouldn’t they be? A Labor left that folds on boat turn-backs signals its weakness, not its strength — and that weakness will be seized upon by the climate-denialist right.

After all, climate change raises profound questions of social justice, since the victims of a warming planet will overwhelmingly be the world’s poorest. There are powerful interests pushing for environmental policies that protect the interests of the few at the expense of the many. A climate change policy devised in isolation from (or at the expense of) other issues may, in fact, be worse than the status quo, serving as the Trojan Horse by which the very rich capitalise further on the disaster they have caused.

Whatever progressives do, the refugee issue isn’t going away. In a world wracked by social, economic and, yes, environmental disasters, there will be more and more people crossing borders in search of safety. That’s just reality. The problem for refugee advocates isn’t some innate conservatism of ordinary Australians, so much as a prevailing sense that no alternatives to the status quo are possible. An acceptance of the cruel logic of the camps only reinforces that perception.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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