The long, slow death of the Australian refugee movement


It’s difficult for people who aren’t inveterate watchers of the extreme Left to understand how important the Refugee movement has been to them, and how much its slow decay into irrelevance has damaged their morale.

Back in in early 2002 in the wake of the Tampa affair, if you were a lefty the Refugee movement was the place to be. Huge protests took place in every city and on every major university campus. Refugee organisations reached out from the capital cities and organised pro-refugee groups in every major regional centre (and even occasionally down to the level of country towns). The mainstream press wailed daily about the evil Howard government’s evil policies and the poor, sainted, Christ-like victims trapped behind the razor wire of the evil-right-wing-Nazi-death-camps simply for fleeing from danger.

The extreme Left saw an opportunity and jumped on it. Ian Rintoul had started the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney in 1999 as a front group for the Trotskyist International Socialist Organisation. The refugee group skyrocketed and as his parent group increasingly dumped its energies into the disastrous Socialist Alliance project, Rintoul was eventually forced to leave the ISO (which he had joined in 1975) in 2003 to concentrate on mining the sudden gold rush of mainstream leftie outrage.

In Melbourne, extreme left groups organised together under the name of the Refugee Action Collective, to try and scoop up all the newly outraged ABC viewers eager to protest the camps that had existed since 1992 but somehow had never mattered before. Similar front groups popped up in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth to organise the outpouring of outrage.

Thousands of leftists were mobilised and bussed to Woomera in the middle of the South Australian desert in 2002. There they broke down the fences surrounding the detention centre and let out more than a dozen detainees. Similar large protests at other centres eventually forced the shutting down of several facilities and the movement of the processing system for illegal arrivals offshore.

The rallies grew and grew. New recruits swelled the ranks of the Greens and while the extreme-Left Marxist groups failed to capitalise in terms of membership, they were still the main organisers of a swelling, angry movement of self-righteous, humanitarian minded moralists with support in the media, the universities and at the highest levels of the legal and political establishment.

Every day brought new stories of hunger strikes and self-harm, children being mistreated and evil guards being sadistic to these poor helpless victims of the world. Celebrities jumped on board the bandwagon. Protests were held in offices of any company related to the processing centres. “Free the refugees” became the topic of conversation around every well-heeled dinner party, as tales of ever increasing (and ever more unlikely) torment and woe were shared over cheese and chardonnay by tongue clicking sophisticates congratulating each other on the broadness of their compassion.

And at every protest, leading every march and making the statements on the evening news were the members and activists of the Trotskyist extreme Left.

From their point of view things were going quite well.

Then disaster happened.

Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, declared the Howard “Pacific Solution” over and opened up the floodgates.

While the hardcore continued to agitate, for the majority of those who had swelled the ranks the fight was now over, and as the boats began again with gusto with the steady accompaniment of the sun bloated bodies of children washing ashore, the passion began to fade even further.

Even La Trobe Professor Robert Manne, staunch leftist, co-inventor of the “Stolen Generations” and no respecter of truth by any means, was forced to admit that the Left had got the issue of refugees horribly wrong (while of course later blaming the right as well).

Kevin Rudd tried to make excuses for the massive increase in arrivals, blaming international situations, push factors, and probably the phases of the moon, but the majority of mainstream Australia who had been quietly going about their lives while the left had been noisily beating their breasts in the street weren’t having it.

Rudd had no factional support and only survived as Labor leader as long as his remarkably high poll numbers stayed aloft. As this and other issues (such as the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit) began to pull his popularity slowly downwards his political downfall soon followed.

Gillard had no greater luck than Rudd; her “Malaysia Solution” was scuppered by an increasingly amused Liberal opposition, who after spending years being compared to Nazis by the left for solving the problem were enjoying the ALP’s discomfort. Eventually in late 2012 with an election approaching Gillard re-opened the Nauru and Manus island detention centres and restarted Howard’s Pacific Solution.

The extreme Left must have breathed a sigh of relief. They had been plodding on, holding ever diminishing protests and trying to recapture the magic of the early 2000s without much success. Their discipline, motivation and organisation meant that the protests and front groups never entirely went away, but the mass support they had once enjoyed was gone. Unfortunately they were still protesting against an ALP Prime Minister, which meant the masses of left-leaning voters didn’t want to know.

Then Rudd returned to kick out Gillard and in turn was turfed out by Abbott. The magic formula was back! An evil right wing Nazi locking up and brutalising poor defenceless children!

But while protests around “Baby Asha” and continued hyping of the terrible conditions in the offshore centres did trend upwards for a time, it was hardly thousands of people in the desert pulling apart fences as poor oppressed brown people fled to freedom. The golden days were over, and they were never coming back.

When you’re reduced to tearfully complaining about the cruel terror that is mould (as activists were this week), you know you’re running on fumes.

Much as happens whenever the ideas of the far left are tried, they failed. And the failure was so big, so huge and so abject that there was never going to be any way back. The ALP is not going to open up the borders to boats the way Rudd did ever again. Studies show public opinion has been trending against illegal arrivals since the 1970s and that isn’t likely to change. The far left has lost the debate, regardless of their stubborn unwillingness to admit it.

As XYZ pointed out just two weeks ago, when several pro-refugee groups in Melbourne called for a Sunday protest at the Broadmeadows detention centre only about 60 Marxists, Anarchists and the Greens candidate for Batman bothered to show up. If you took away the extremists (some of them veterans of forty years of protests) there barely would have been anyone there.

They called a follow up protest for the next Wednesday morning and only about 12 people showed up. Maybe some of the others had to work?

Of course, protests in the centre of the city are better attended, but this is Melbourne. The area in Melbourne’s inner north between Bell Street and Spring Street is probably the highest concentration of middle class lefties in Australia and is excellently serviced by public transport directly to the CBD. I’ve met lefties from Northcote who go to any left leaning protest just for the day out regardless of the issue, but that’s hardly the point.

The point is that fifteen years ago, thousands of people from Melbourne were willing to get on a bus to the middle of the South Australian desert to support the Refugee cause; now they won’t go to the outer northern suburb of Broadmeadows. And as the trickle of detainees leaving for the U.S or returning empty handed to their homelands continues and the number still in the camps continues to shrink, so will the relevance of the “Refugee movement”.

They’re almost dead now; it’s just momentum, hope, government money and donations from undisclosed sources kicking them along.

And good riddance.