Labor for Refugees at a Crossroads

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Chifley’s Hill has chosen to publish this editorial addressing the role of Labor for Refugees following the debate on boat turnbacks at ALP National Conference. We welcome comment and discussion.

Labor for Refugees is disorganised, incoherent and incompetent. It must change now, or be destroyed and replaced.

Refugee advocates are understandably disappointed in the wake of Labor’s failure to oppose the turnback of asylum seeker boats at National Conference. We must take the coming months to regroup, critically assess the reasons for this failure, and organise for the campaign ahead.

Even as the dust settles though, one factor is clear: Labor for Refugees, the peak refugee advocacy group in our party, has been comprehensively mismanaged and characterised by a string of massive blunders and miscalculations.

The debate at National Conference was a moment of high tension where clear thinking, strong and principled leadership, and strategic nous was vital. Labor for Refugees offered none of this.

Instead its representatives advanced a series of bizarre and incoherent proposals which led to them being widely seen as confused and incompetent. During negotiations their position varied wildly, and at times seemed to be completely at odds with both their stated mission and the views of their membership. The result was that the organisation supposedly responsible for leading the charge on refugee rights was consigned to the margins of the debate, with any respect and relevance having long eroded from around it.

The central debate of the conference, the question of whether Labor would support the turnback of asylum seeker vessels, had not yet fully taken shape even on Saturday morning. With only hours until speakers were due to take to the floor, it was still to be determined whether an amendment would be put to prohibit turnbacks in the party platform.

In these final crucial moments, Labor for Refugees argued strongly that no effort should be made to explicitly rule out turnbacks. They even claimed that to do so was both unnecessary and counterproductive to the refugee cause.

The core of their argument was that there were sufficient references to international law within the existing platform that it could be interpreted as being opposed to turnbacks. They claimed that if an amendment was fought and lost on conference floor, it would rebut this interpretation and have the effect of implicitly endorsing turnbacks. They also claimed that if a future Labor government attempted boat turnbacks, this interpretation of the platform could be argued before the ALP National Executive, who would then bind the government against turnbacks.

Let us be absolutely clear: these arguments are farcical in their absurdity. They would be comical but for the severity and importance of the debate in question.

Any question over whether the platform would implicitly support or oppose turnbacks if it remained silent on the issue was blown apart before conference even began. Bill Shorten publicly announced his support for turnbacks on Thursday 23 June, saying he “needs to have all the options on the table”.

From that moment onwards this was a moot point. It was clear that a silent platform would only give Shorten the discretion he wanted to pursue turnbacks in government. The only live options for refugee advocates were to remain silent, knowing for certain this would result in turnbacks, or attempt to amend the platform and explicitly oppose them. Labor for Refugees instead continued to claim we could remain silent and somehow still consider this a victory in our favour.

They also fatally misunderstood the function of the ALP National Executive. It is not, and has never been, the sort of activist organisation which would make such a dramatic intervention as to cripple a core component of the refugee policy of a future Labor government. To the contrary, National Executive has always served to secure the interests of the parliamentary party and ensure it is not undermined by other branches.

The members of National Executive are senior factional players who, appropriately enough, allow such debates to play out and resolve on the floor of National Conference. They simply would not imply a significant restriction against the parliamentary party where none is explicitly stated in the platform. The fact that Labor for Refugees so vigorously argued otherwise betrays a disturbing lack of understanding about how power in the Labor Party actually works.

National Conference is the highest level of decision-making in the party. It demands serious people making clear and consistent arguments, and building coalitions of supporters from groups with often conflicting interests. It should be absolutely no surprise then, that when Labor for Refugees made these arguments with senior leaders they were quickly dismissed as out-of-touch cranks, and promptly ignored.

The question we have to ask is, how did it come to this? How was the peak refugee advocacy group within the Labor Party reduced to a bumbling, irrelevant laughingstock?

Other internal lobby groups, such as Rainbow Labor and the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN), provide some answers. Both organisations have moved from strength to strength and achieved significant policy reform. They have been broadly united in their purpose, and served as valuable cross-factional hubs for activists. They have engaged with and been supported by senior factional leaders, trade unionists, and rank-and-file members. And finally, they have been politically savvy in organising intelligent, long-term lobbying campaigns to shift hearts and minds.

Labor for Refugees, in comparison, has entered terminal decline. It is wrought with internal tension and constant infighting. It’s organisational structure is ossified and dysfunctional, with no elections in years. It’s leadership has been hijacked by members with little understanding of the internal machinery of the party, and a hostile attitude towards even those factional leaders who do support their cause. They are hopelessly out of their depth. They simply do not have the competence or political nous to navigate complex internal policy debate, and to carry with them the numbers needed to win the day on conference floor.

Even now, internal discussions reveal leading members of Labor for Refugees are convinced the strategy adopted at the conference was correct. They simmer with righteous indignation that they were sidelined and ignored by the factions. As far as they are concerned, they were  noble advocates, and if only their position were adopted peace and justice would have prevailed.

Nonsense. Labor for Refugees was incompetent, disorganised, and advanced a series of bizarre policy propositions with no bearing on the reality of the situation. If their arguments had succeeded, Bill Shorten would have walked out of National Conference with no dissent whatsoever to a reprehensible policy of boat turnbacks.

When it came down to it the opposition was led not by Labor for Refugees, but rather by Andrew Giles and other senior members of the National Left. And it was only because the National Left demonstrated the clarity that Labor for Refugees lacked that a debate over this issue was had at all.

This is in no way to argue against Labor for Refugees’ right to exist and organise in the ALP as a committed group of activists. We applaud the efforts of those members who have fought to advance a consistent and coherent policy. They have the unfortunate and sysiphean task of dragging the organisation kicking and screaming towards a sensible organisational strategy. And to their credit, there is hope that the spectacular failure of Labor for Refugees at National Conference will lead to an internal spill, a rejuvenation of the leadership, and a coherent and well organised long-term lobbying campaign.

The signs at the moment are desperately bleak though. If change does not come, and come soon, Labor members should have no hesitation in salting the earth and creating a new organisation which can and will lead. If Labor for Refugees is incapable of standing against inhumane refugee policy, why should it exist at all?



Update 09/08/2015 – Response from Nizza Siano, Labor for Refugees National Secretary
Nizza Siano, the National Secretary of Labor for Refugees, has provided the following response to our Editorial in the comments section below. We republish an edited version here.

Labor for Refugees always opposed turnbacks and right up to the last evening before the refugee debate took place, intended to submit a motion opposing turnbacks plus other
motions including one to close Manus Island and Nauru. However, Labor for Refugees decided to withdraw its own motion on turnbacks and argued the case at Left caucus against putting the Andrew Giles/Murray Watt motion opposing turnbacks to the floor of the conference, in circumstances where it was bound to fail.

This was because we discovered that the Left would not bind and the CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor would not support it. The CFMEU had 20 Delegates and United Voice, who did not have a binding vote, had 12 Delegates. Labor for Refugees had, in the lead up to Conference, effectively lobbied Right unions including the NUW, SDA and AWU, so if the Left had been united, there would have been a good chance of getting major refugee reforms through the Conference. With the numbers so close (and the right bound on the platform remaining silent on turnbacks) any split in the Left doomed it to fail.

Labor for Refugees consistently said that the platform as it stands (which is silent on turnbacks) prohibits turn-backs. It requires compliance with international law and turn-backs involve breaches of international law. In spite of knowing that the turnback motion would not get up on the floor of Conference, after Labor for Refugees lost the argument at the Left caucus, I voted for the Giles/Watt motion opposing turnbacks on the floor of the conference, which of course went down. Losing that motion has left those who campaigned against turn backs in a much worse position that had the motion never been put.

On the positive side, Labor for Refugees also promoted a petition called “Labor Women Say” asking all ALP women to sign up to end abuse and close Nauru & Manus Island. The issue of turnbacks, which dominated the refugee debate, allowed barely any time to debate the issue of offshore processing centres. Labor for Refugees submitted a motion demanding that both the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres be closed. However, the Left proposed a watered down version which was moved by Murray Watt/Andrew Giles. Even this watered down version by the Left was defeated on the floor of Conference because it was not binding on the Left.

Labor for Refugees held a fringe event that surpassed all others for attendance and engagement and obtained significant media coverage. Labor for Refugees had a consistently staffed stall and the tireless volunteers there fielded many questions from many delegates and changed quite a few positions. We distributed hundreds of T-shirts which were highly visible during the ill-fated debate on conference floor. Labor for Refugees National Co-Convenor Shane Prince addressed a large rally outside Conference and received a very warm reception (notwithstanding his Labor colours). More importantly, 90% of the Labor for Refugee amendments which were settled on by the Labor for Refugees National Co-ordinating Committee during the consultation draft phase were incorporated into the platform which was adopted by the conference. Those amendments were argued by Shane Prince in the National Policy Forum Working Group, to which he was invited because of the significance of Labor for Refugees’ contribution in this area.

Labor for Refugees is not assuming the moral high ground. We have defended our decisions in other fora and I believe it’s simplistic for some Left members who are taking the high moral ground, to condemn the decision Labor for Refugees made. It was a very difficult one for Labor for Refugees to make and we knew that it may be misunderstood but we wanted the best outcome for refugees. That was the foremost consideration for us.