The Liberals' and Labor's history of competition over racism and refugee cruelty

2 April 2024
Erin Russell
Then immigration minister Philip Ruddock with former prime minister John Howard at a press conference discussing the Tampa crisis in August 2001

On the night of Labor’s 2022 election win, Prime Minister-elect Anthony Albanese delivered his victory speech with an air of triumphant confidence. Just a year and a half later, the same man was giving a different speech, this time with the teary-eyed face of defeat as he conceded the loss of the Voice referendum.

Labor’s approval ratings tell a similar story. In the first week after the referendum, the Roy Morgan Poll showed that the Coalition was leading the ALP for the first time since the election, with ALP two-party support dropping 4.5 points to 49.5 percent. While this has since gone up, there is no doubt Labor’s support has slumped, as has their enthusiasm for talking about Indigenous issues.

The No campaign spearheaded by opposition leader Peter Dutton was able to tap into racism and discontent with the cost-of-living crisis using the racist argument that Indigenous people have it too good and are getting unfair advantages. In the face of this, Labor had nothing to offer but milquetoast appeals to unity and respectful debate.

In the weeks after the referendum, Dutton leapt from one racism-fuelled victory to the next. After the High Court ruled that the indefinite detention of refugees was illegal, Dutton seized on the opportunity to wedge Labor on an issue that combined anti-refugee racism and moral panic about crime. Claiming that “84 hardcore criminals have been released into our communities from detention”, Dutton called on Labor to do more to prioritise the supposed safety of Australians, to which Labor characteristically obliged, rushing through a bill that imposed draconian restrictions on those who had been illegally detained. Dutton and his allies also called for an audit of spending on Indigenous programs and railed against Indigenous welcomes to country. For all this, the Liberals have been rewarded handsomely in the polls.

Using racism to shore up or improve its electoral prospects is a tried-and-true strategy of the Liberal Party, one it has been heavily dependent on to win office in recent decades. Labor’s well-worn duck-and-cover response only reinforces the strategy’s success.

In 2001, Liberal Prime Minister John Howard made a hard turn to anti-refugee racism in the lead-up to the November federal election. When a small, sinking boat of 400 mostly Iraqi and Afghan refugees was picked up by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa, the government entered into a high-seas stand-off in order to prevent them from arriving on Australian shores. The navy was sent out to intercept the ship and force it to re-route to the island of Nauru, where the refugees were thrown into an Australian-funded concentration camp. Labor’s response was to support the interception of Tampa and vote in favour of new laws making it harder for people to claim asylum in Australia.

Then came the 11 September terror attacks, after which Howard doubled down on anti-refugee racism as his key electoral strategy, whipping up fear about the threat of terrorism from Arab and Muslim people arriving by boat and painting the ALP as unreliable defenders of national security. After going into the election seriously concerned about their prospects, by 10 November the Liberals had been able to win a sweeping victory.

In the wake of the 2001 election, and in the context of the ongoing US interventions in Afghanistan and later Iraq, the Labor Party would proceed for years to come to engage in a race to the bottom with the Liberals over asylum seekers from Muslim and Arab countries.

When the 2004 election came around, Howard once again brought border security to the fore. Labor leader Mark Latham had taken a hard stance against refugee rights to neutralise the issue, calling for even stronger borders and questioning why Australia doesn’t just “arrest the people smugglers and throw them in jail?”. But this hardline stance received criticism from the Labor left at the ALP national conference in Sydney. A resolution moved by none other than Anthony Albanese called for an end to temporary protection visas once refugees’ status was proven and opposed mandatory detention for refugees who had passed health, security and identification checks. While Latham had the numbers at the conference, Howard jumped on the debate to criticise Labor for being “weak and divided on national security and in the war against terrorism”. Once again, the Coalition was able to win after making racist arguments about national security the focus of the election.

The 2007 election bucked this trend to some degree. Over the two years leading up to it, a union-led campaign against Howard’s anti-union WorkChoices legislation had drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets on a class basis. While Howard had attempted to foment a racist moral panic with dubious claims of child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities, he failed to distract attention from WorkChoices sufficiently. Class issues remained central, and the Liberals lost the election.

Unfortunately, this did not mean an end to the use of refugees as a political football in electoral politics. Soon after Labor’s win, the Liberals attempted to regain lost ground by attacking Labor over a moderate loosening of border protection and subsequent increase in asylum seeker arrivals by boat. When Julia Gillard replaced Rudd as prime minister, she quickly neutralised the issue by reopening the notorious offshore detention centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island. Upon Rudd’s dramatic return to the prime ministership in 2013, and with another election approaching, he doubled down on a hardline stance towards asylum seekers. Under an arrangement with the PNG government, the Labor government announced that “as of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”.

In the wake of defeat by the Liberals under Tony Abbott, Labor’s opportunistic race to the bottom over refugees continued apace. When Abbott introduced even stricter anti-refugee laws through Operation Sovereign Borders, which had the Navy turning back boats carrying refugees into Australian waters, it received bipartisan support from Labor, now under the leadership of Bill Shorten. The 2015 national Labor conference endorsed boat turn-backs, and by the 2016 election the rhetoric of the ALP mimicked that of the Liberals.

It is telling that even Malcolm Turnbull of the supposedly progressive wing of the Liberal Party was just as willing as arch-conservative Abbot to demonise “boat people” for political gain. A week out from the 2016 election, in a last-ditch attempt to boost Liberal support, Turnbull announced that the government had re-routed a boat with 21 asylum seekers on board. But as a report written after the Liberals’ re-election noted, by now the ALP’s approach to asylum seekers was so similar to the Liberals’ that it had barely been an issue of debate.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Liberal Party is quick to jump on racism as an electoral strategy. As the main party representing Australian business, it is in the Liberals’ interests to generate a sense of national cohesion that cuts against class consciousness and potential hostility to the employers. The more powerless the enemy against which the nation unites, the more effective the strategy.

Racism also disguises the fact that the Liberals have little to offer the mass of people. Their policies are primarily about enriching the elite they represent, so beat-ups about crime, illegal immigration or vulnerable groups getting “special privileges” all help distract people from this reality and give the Liberals something about which to connect with broader layers.

For the social layer they represent, racism is frequently in their immediate economic interests: they rely on super-exploitable migrant workers to generate ever greater profits or indifference towards Indigenous people to get control of land for mining or other money-making purposes. Corporate Australia might not always want to admit it openly, but racism is good business.

But what about the Labor Party? While the workers who vote for it have no stake in demonising refugees, as a party that wants to run Australian capitalism, the ALP does have an interest in upholding racism. Labor doesn’t want to offer the genuine reforms—like higher wages and better social services and welfare provision—that some of its base still expect, because such reforms would antagonise the bosses and threaten their profits. Squeezed profits and a capitalist class intent on sabotaging an unfriendly government are not good for Australian capitalism, or the ALP’s electoral prospects.

So Labor is as keen to jump on issues that distract from inequality, poor working conditions and inadequate social services as their opponents are, if for slightly different reasons. If a choice must be made between taking a principled stand against racism and risking electoral defeat or taking the easy road to electoral support, for the Labor Party it’s a no-brainer.

The Voice referendum only reinforced this approach. Labor hoped the Liberals would feel they had to fall in behind the proposal, as they did with Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations following the 2007 election. When they didn’t, and instead used it to drum up opposition to Indigenous people and the inner-city elites who back them, the ALP was immediately on the back foot, with disastrous results for both Indigenous rights and the ALP’s political fortunes.

For those of us who despise racism, 2023 was an important reminder that the Labor Party cannot be relied on to fight it. To do so, we need to be equipped with the sort of politics that is not beholden to doing what is required to run capitalism, and that will not put electoral gains ahead of a principled commitment to standing with the oppressed.

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