Tony Burke pushes left on refugee and asylum seeker policy

Labor's immigration spokesman says there is "no such thing as an illegal human being". Marcus Strom finds it hard to disagree.

In the context of the refugee movement the slogan, "no human being is illegal" has traditionally been adopted by the radical left that supports an abolition of all immigration controls. In France, such a slogan is used by the leftists involved in the National Coordination of Sans Papiers; in Britain it is activists involved in groups such as No Borders and No One Is Illegal that use such language.

It was therefore quite surprising to hear such sentiment come from the mouth of Tony Burke, shadow minister for immigration. Speaking at the Labor for Refugees fundraising dinner on July 29, it's obvious that Burke has taken his portfolio as far to the left as ALP policy allows. The fundraising dinner was the opening gambit in the L4R campaign to further shift ALP policy at the national conference in April next year. More than 250 people attended (most from the Labor Right) and about $10,000 was raised.

Comrade Burke would not necessarily see his policy step as a shift to the left, but more of a turn to a more humane policy. Such an idea was echoed by UnionsNSW secretary John Robertson, who was MC for the evening. Adopting the "values-driven" language of people such as David McKnight, he said that Labor for Refugees was not interested in ideology, but in the sort of values "that make Australia a decent society". Burke said ALP policy should reflect the sort of place we want Australia to be and how we want to be perceived overseas.

It is yet unclear whether Burke was merely speaking to his audience, or if it is a harbinger for a genuine change in the ALP's policy. Labor Tribune had hoped to publish his speech in full but we were told it was unavailable. Not a great sign. It will be up to activists in Labor for Refugees to ensure that Burke's sentiments on July 29 are turned into policy.

Burke backed his rejection of the term "illegals" with a story about Chris Watson, Labor's first prime minister and after whom Burke's federal seat is named. Watson was not all he says he was. Watson was born in Valparioso. His mother, Martha Minchin, was from New Zealand, his father a Chilean of German descent, Johan Cristian Tanck. This was not known during Watson's lifetime.

Burke, a gifted public speaker, said that Watson would have had no chance in today's Australia under Howard's immigration laws. An immigrant that changed his name, forged his papers and who was of German descent. He would not have been allowed to enter the country, given the vote or be able to become prime minister. Further, he would most likely have ended up in an internment camp for Germans during World War I had news of his Germanic parentage emerged.

Burke expressed his shame that nothing had forced changes in the culture of the department of immigration until a blonde woman, Cornelia Rau, was subject to injustice. He recommitted the ALP to terminating private contracts in immigration. Of the legislation excising the whole of Australia from the Migration Act (Pacific Solution Mark II), he said that a Labor government would "repeal it in full".

Bob Gould's effervescent sycophancy towards Tony Burke on the night was a sight to behold. A Trotskyist buried inside the ALP for 50 years, it's not hard to imagine yourself as tremendously leftwing. However, Gould's pronouncement that Burke's platform for immigration policy was a good "minimum program" displays the dangers in going totally native in the ALP. During Gould's surprisingly brief contribution to the evening, one wiseacre quipped from the audience that "Bob will see himself confirmed [catholic] on his deathbed". Stranger things have happened.

Burke, a committed catholic and former SDA retail workers' union organiser, shows relish at his portfolio. A far cry from his predecessor, Laurie Ferguson, allegedly a member of the Left. Burke said that there were aspects of ALP policy on asylum seekers that he did not agree with, but rather than say this, he merely put aspects of the policy "under review". That review process will go to shadow cabinet in the next few months leading up to national conference.

"I'm yet to be shown a good reason why." These were Burke's words on suggestions that temporary protection visas should be retained. He finished his speech with a message for asylum seekers and refugees under a Labor government: "The day you arrive in Australia is the day your persecution ends." Burke will face a struggle in shadow cabinet to win support for abolition of TPVs, but he is confident he can win. Refugee and immigration activists in the ALP and beyond should put maximum pressure on Labor to win this change.

Of course at the heart of the injustices is a world system that is all about controlling human labour-power as a commodity. As the world economy becomes increasingly global, it is a crime that human beings are treated as criminals for wanting a better life. Tony Burke is quite right; no human being should be illegal. However, there is only one way to ensure this and that is to abolish immigration controls altogether. Democrats, humanitarians and socialists should campaign for a world without borders. Businessman and explorer Dick Smith has called for the end of all immigration controls, saying, "Borders are really – they’re immoral, really if you analyse it."

We live in a world where the shoe made in a Vietnamese sweat shop has more rights to travel than the woman who made it.

Burke made some nod towards this, saying that his review of Labor policy included looking at complementary protection for people who arrive in Australia who are not necessarily asylum seekers. He mentioned refugees from Pacific island nations affected by sea level changes and global warming.

Labor for Refugees is yet to adopt the consistent position of opposing all immigration controls. However, it does call for an end to mandatory detention. The ALP's current policy is for 90-days detention for health, identity and security checks.

Such a position is a nonsense. Health checks can be done upon arrival through x-rays for tuberculosis and blood tests for other illnesses. (Such illnesses should not be an excuse to deport, but as a basis for treatment in Australia.) Identity and security checks can be done in the community. There are suggestions that Burke can be won to such a policy. If the ALP can adopt a refugee policy that ends TPVs, allows for 'processing' of refugees in the community and increases the scope of complementary protection, much will have been won. However, we will still live in a world of borders where people are criminalised for wanting a better life.

The evening was a solid result for Labor 4 Refugees, which has been struggling to maintain momentum. The night needs to be followed up soon with a national convergence of ALP refugee activists in our preparations for ALP national conference.


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