Organised Labour Must Lead the Fight to Free the Refugees
01-11-2017 – As we go to press, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defence Force is preparing to enter the Manus Island refugee detention centre, where around 600 men remain, fearful for their safety if they are forced out. Earlier this year, the PNG army fired live ammunition into the detention centre, and there have also been machete and knife attacks against the asylum seekers by some aggrieved locals. The Manus Island detention centre is being closed after a ruling from the PNG courts which found that its establishment was unconstitutional. Full responsibility for it lies with the Australian government, which has funded these hell-hole death camps on Nauru and PNG to the tune of billions of dollars.
As of today, reports indicate that electricity generators have been removed from the detention centre, which could mean that toilets and running water would cease to function. There are photos of refugees diverting rain water from building guttering into wheelie bins, so as to ensure they have some water when the cut off takes effect. This truly farcical but all too real medieval like siege is overseen by the current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who repeatedly claim that these refugees remain the responsibility of the PNG government. Far from it. All of these refugees, who attempted to flee to Australia in fear for their lives, were unceremoniously dumped by the Australian government in what are in reality death camps, funded by private sector contracts authorised by the Australian government. To avoid mass casualties of those who have not committed any crime, the federal government must evacuate Manus Island detainees to Australia immediately.
Refugee rights at an impasse
The diabolical situation facing refugees and asylum seekers in this country is in the main the result of several interlocking factors. One is the almost criminal inaction of most Union officials. Perhaps the core reason for the unimaginable cruelty meted out to refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government is their political need to divide the working class into an “us” and “them”. In the absence of a strong left-wing political force, this division leads to working people diverting their entirely justifiable dismay at unemployment, poverty, and the high cost of living onto refugees, almost all of whom are from countries much less wealthy than Australia, and almost all of whom are not white. This fuels and fosters extreme racism, despite the official declarations of multicultural Australia.
This racism is poison for the labour movement. The workplace is the only place in capitalist society which is truly integrated. All production depends on cooperation between workers regardless of their nationality, culture, language or religion. The Union movement simply cannot even begin to organise workers to defend themselves from the effects of the dire capitalist recession afflicting Australia, the US and Europe, unless they take action to decisively extinguish all traces of racism. While many groups and institutions in society oppose racism towards refugees from a moral, philosophical, religious or even political standpoint – such as the Greens, liberal NGOs, small businesses, church groups, social-welfare bodies – only the working class has a material interest in overcoming and defeating racist ideology and practice. This is why it is a vital necessity for the Union movement to be the leading force against the appalling abuse of refugees and asylum seekers who have made it to these shores.
Yet the question of the Union movement is the question of the leadership of the Union movement. With a few exceptions, Unions in Australia are led by conservative, well-paid officials who have little interest in risking anything to assist working people. After all, their careers can only continue if they act to restrict the workers movement to the confines of the existing system, which is based on the exploitation of wage labour. Hence, these Union officials actively inculcate working people with ideology almost identical to that of the business class. Specifically, they politically steer workers towards the very institution of the profit system – parliament – which is used to deceive working people that they have some form of “democracy”.
This is by no means done directly. Some Union officials openly back the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and urge workers in that direction. However, the ALP is itself so exposed on the question of refugee rights – it established the mandatory detention of refugees, as well as off-shore detention – that that option is often a no go. So in steps an organisation such as GetUp! – an ALP front if ever there was one. GetUp! was created in 2005, as a result of funding from some Unions. As it poses as simply an independent activist group, and initiates campaigns on popular issues – for refugee rights, against coal mining and so on – many are unaware as to its core political role. However, Liberal Party politicians are certainly aware of the overall role of GetUp! driving campaigns which easily fit into the agenda of the ALP and the Greens. They have pushed for an Australian Electoral Commission inquiry into its funding. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) recently had its offices raided as a politicised action to discredit the ALP, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten specifically. While workers should resolutely condemn and oppose any raids on any Union offices, they should also seriously question why the officials of some Unions hand members money to bodies such as GetUp!
Refugee rights in the service of war
GetUp!, the labour bureaucracy and the ALP have a three way symbiotic relationship – one cannot exist without the other. GetUp! is the acceptable public face of the ALP, a Clayton’s ALP. The labour bureaucracy funds both GetUp! and the ALP, often against the express wishes of the Union members themselves. If GetUp! did not exist, the political crisis for the ALP and the labour bureaucracy would see the ALP slide further and further backwards. Some of this manoeuvring also assists the Greens, and they work together on similar campaigns. With regard to refugee rights, the rare involvement of GetUp! helps to play the role that the labour bureaucracy would themselves play if they were involved – shepherding and steering the refugee rights movement into a lobby group, begging and pleading for changes from the very politicians themselves responsible for the maltreatment of refugees.
As we have mentioned on several occasions previously, the refugee rights movement, such as it is, has a fatal flaw. It does not seek to highlight the reasons why refugees are created in the first place. Impoverished people fleeing the harsh economic conditions in the third world are one aspect. In recent years, however, a much larger proportion are fleeing the US led imperialist wars which have been waged around the world – inevitably with the backing of Canberra. Yet the activist refugee rights movement in this country is largely led by some misguided left parties which have not opposed these wars which have the potential to unleash World War III. These left parties have been some of the most vocal proponents calling for regime change in Libya and Syria – and the US/NATO juggernaut obliged. Refugees fleeing from the Middle East and North Africa were then welcomed by these refugee rights groups, the effect of which was to justify further war against sovereign countries.
It is true that these left parties were joined by others not inclined at all to socialism, but were welcomed as part of a “broad” movement. Unbeknownst to them, the labour bureaucracy via organisations such as GetUp! were ensuring that the refugee rights movement as a whole stayed well within the bounds of acceptable public discourse – nominally “anti-war”, but in practice calling for the downfall of the latest “dictator” the US had decided was the next target. In this respect, the labour bureaucracy ensured that the refugee rights movement perfectly aligned itself within the political spectrum of Australian imperialism. Despite notable exceptions from groups such as Hands Off Syria, there was little opposition to the Australian military’s role in helping the US bomb Syria under the false pretence of “fighting ISIS”.
Needless to say, with the world hurtling towards a World War III scenario, the refugee rights movement needs a clinical break from its previous practice of being manipulated by the politically savvy interests of private capital. For it was not only for the wars on Libya and Syria that the refugee rights movement was mobilised to flag wave. The US Empire is also in the throes of encircling Russia. NATO has installed 31 000 troops in Poland, has spent $3 billion on building up presence in the former Eastern bloc countries, in a “Cold War 2.0”. NATO’s backing of fascists in Ukraine, sponsoring a coup, was also aimed squarely at Russia, along with the war to destroy Syria. When the former PM Tony Abbott openly blamed Russia for the shooting down of flight MH17, without a shred of evidence, the refugee rights movement – as with the liberal intelligentsia – were virtually silent. Can anyone imagine the refugees produced by a war against Russia?
Just as dangerous are the US led provocations against Red China. Furious at China’s socialist economy driving prosperity inside and outside the world’s largest country, the US ruling class knows it must act to contain China soon, or be eclipsed economically, diplomatically and politically. Too large to destroy in a one-on-one, the US deep state targets areas to break off from the People’s Republic, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and islands in the South China Sea. It also actively funds “NGOs” in the countries bordering China, including Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. It is Myanmar where the latest “humanitarian war” is being prepared, over hypocritical concern for the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. Again, refugees will be created by the millions if a military conflict with China breaks out.
The other assault on Red China are the continual threats to its socialist neighbour, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”). All that the DPRK has ever stated is that if it is attacked, it will respond. Yet the US Empire, and not only President Trump, whips up such irrational demonisation of the DPRK that millions of working people regrettably do not question the wild allegations. In the last six months there has been the very real threat of nuclear war with the DPRK – a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Yet, again, we have virtual silence from the refugee rights movement, and those who in the past prided themselves on their anti-war credentials. This is unfortunately not a coincidence. The refugee rights movement, to the mistaken left parties, to the labour bureaucracy, to the ALP, to the Greens, to GetUp! – all of them fall into line, some consciously, some not – behind the aims of Australian imperialism.
For labour action to free the refugees
This is why it is impossible to free the refugees on Manus Island (and Nauru) without a complete break with Australian foreign policy. This has to also mean a political break with those forces who consciously seek to impose its hegemony – parliamentarist parties, the labour bureaucracy, GetUp! etc – as well as with the waylaid left parties pulling up the rear. What is required is a direct challenge by Union members to the ideologically pro-capitalist Union officials, in the course of a struggle for a leadership which recognises no common interest between the employers and workers. This will inevitably require the forming of rank and file Union committees, which may need to be underground. Supporting these efforts must be the most keenly class aware workers, forming the basis of a Marxist vanguard party. Such a party would seek to both drive the urgently needed political action for the refugee rights movement, as part of a struggle to revive Union and class struggle for jobs, decent healthcare and education, public transport and other measures currently being eliminated by the capitalist crisis. It would also seek to mobilise workers in strident opposition to imperialist war, if need be by forming a workers government. EVACUATE MANUS ISLAND! BRING THE REFUGEES TO THE MAINLAND!
PO Box 66 NUNDAH QLD 4012