We have to challenge divide and rule politics
We have to challenge divide and rule politics

Few things enrage me as much as protesting outside a detention centre. 

Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation. It sounds so polite. The flat words on the page aren’t enough. The words should explode into rage and anguish. They should be drawn out for minutes into hours into days into year upon year upon year upon year upon year of detention without charge, without trial and without any date of release. 

At a protest at MITA on 1 October, we hear Joey, a 501 detainee, talk about migrants jailed for driving offences who have now been in detention for seven years. About Alicia, who had spent 29 days in prison followed by seven years in detention. About a detainee who killed himself because he’d rather be in a cemetery in Australia than be deported away from his daughter. 

We hear from Mohammad Masumbila, one of eleven refugees from Bangladesh, who has been in detention for ten years, four of them in MITA. From Jhaidul, also detained since 2012. 

We’re addressed by veteran refugee activist Pamela Curr, reminding us of the obscenities committed over many years in MITA and places like it. She reminds us of the protests for Ranjini, one of dozens of Tamil refugees detained in 2012, on the say-so of ASIO using secret and untestable evidence. Ranjini gave birth while in detention. She was finally released, with her toddler, three years later. 

So many years stolen. So many lives wrecked. 

Pamela points to banners strung on the outer fence of MITA. They were painted when Ranjini and the Tamils were first detained, ten years ago. They still express the obscenity of indefinite detention today.

We get chatting with a local activist, who reminds us of the many thousands of family members stuck overseas, waiting for some interminable and incomprehensible process from the Immigration Department. Many have been promised a result “within 40 days”. Many have been left in limbo for years. 

Filled with rage, I think about solutions. Maybe, if we were ripping this detention centre apart, brick by brick, it might feel like enough. But we’re stuck with words, and stories. And political strategies.

Some of the demonstrators stand on the footpath, waving placards at passing traffic. Here on Camp Road in Broadmeadows, there are plenty of honks of support. 

I think of doors that I’ve knocked on around here in various election campaigns for Victorian Socialists. Some are migrants who know first-hand the obscene cruelty dealt out to so many by Immigration. 

Some accept my pitch railing against the billionaires, the corporate elite and their political servants—but then challenge me on the part of our campaign leaflet saying we welcome migrants and refugees. In my experience, it’s really only a class argument that can cut through here. 

Too often, racism is presented in purely liberal terms—as some sort of moral failing of an individual. This doesn’t give any way of connecting with those influenced by racist ideas (and by the racist reality of Australia in 2022, for that matter). Rather than liberalism, we need a class argument: 

“We’ve been talking about how the billionaires and politicians are robbing us blind. In my opinion, one of the ways they get away with it is by divide and rule. By saying, ‘Oh so you’ve got a problem with low wages, or insecure work, or no services? Don’t blame me! I’m just the richest person in the country! Blame ... that migrant over there, that refugee over there, that Muslim over there!’” 

This argument can connect, and can shift people, in a way that moral exhortation simply can’t. I’ve had plenty of people thank me who started out wanting to argue with me.

Many times, it’s clear that the person I’m talking with has literally never heard this line of argument before. 

This is an indictment of Labor—the political force that has dominated Broadmeadows and working-class districts like it, along with the unions and the working class as a whole, for many decades in this country. 

Labor’s electoralism, their opposition to uniting the working class in struggle, their track record of filling detention centres rather than tearing them down and their steadfast policy of absolutely refusing to state the truth when it challenges the interests of the capitalist class—for instance, by pointing out that the bosses as a class benefit from racism—are all powerful disincentives to the ALP even attempting to challenge racism.

But the fact that most people in Broadmeadows have never come across an effective class argument against racism is also a commentary on the Greens. The 10 percent of the vote the Greens win in local booths is partly on the basis of their progressive policies on refugees. But the Greens never arm their supporters with class-based arguments that can cut through more broadly—let alone build an interventionist political movement to unite workers to challenge the class enemy.

Which brings me back to my attendance, as a Victorian Socialists candidate, at the MITA protest today organised by the Refugee Action Collective. 

I’ve protested many times at many detention centres. At MITA. At the Park Prison. At Maribyrnong. At Baxter in South Australia. At Villawood in suburban Sydney. 

The protests are essential. They bring attention to the people stuck inside them and the cruelty of the governments, Labor and Liberal, that keep them there. The protests give heart, in utterly heartless conditions, to the detainees. We need plenty more of them. 

But the protests aren’t enough. 

Building a movement worthy of the detainees, of the refugees, of the 501s, of the people honking in support on Camp Road, of all of us: this will take a lot. 

One thing that’s been burned into me by decades of protest, organising, agitation and working life is that, to build a movement that can win, we need a political force that can make a class argument, on a large scale, to working-class people. An argument that these politely named “accommodation” centres—these cages of concrete and wire and laws and rules that cage and crush human beings for years without end, these abominations—are not just an obscenity in human terms or moral terms. They’re also a very concrete part of the “divide and rule” that keeps the rich rich, the powerful powerful and the rest of us in our place. 

Victorian Socialists is a large-scale attempt to create just such a force, which can make just such an argument. In the next eight weeks, many hundreds of us will be bending every nerve to bring a class argument to doorsteps, streets and polling booths in Broadmeadows and far beyond—on racism, on spiralling inflation, on housing, on militarism, on Palestine, on education, on every profit-driven obscenity in this city and in this world.

We’re up against a lot—not just the ALP and the Greens but the far right and, perhaps the most difficult opponent, a deeply felt despair and a justified cynicism about politics.

But despair, cynicism, Labor, moralism, or silent furious rage—none of these will shift the equation. It's up to all of us to channel that rage into a political movement. 

Join us and let’s see what we can do, over the next eight weeks and beyond: victoriansocialists.org.au/volunteer.

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