With fears a ‘bring them here’ motion could pass Labor’s state conference, left unions have decided it is better to play a dead bat on the issue ahead of the federal election. By Karen Middleton.

Inside Labor’s refugee strategy

CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka (left).
CFMEU Victorian secretary John Setka (left).
Credit: AAP Image / Joe Castro

Refugee advocates handing out flyers in the foyer of last weekend’s Victorian Labor Party conference were surprised and thrilled when the Industrial Left’s hard man, John Setka, expressed his support.

Not realising who he was initially, one of the Refugee Action Collective’s volunteers engaged the state secretary of the militant Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union in conversation about asylum-seeker policy. His response was so pleasant and supportive that she offered him a sticker. It read: “Unions stand for refugees. Bring them here”.

Setka not only accepted it, he stuck it on his jacket and insisted she give one to each of the dozen or so of his members standing nearby, who all dutifully did the same.

She and others were shocked to hear later that Setka had backed a move to shut down the conference early and ensure an urgency motion to “bring them here” – along with several other motions, including one to recognise a Palestinian state – was not debated.

Afterwards, Setka tweeted his reasoning: “Why the hell are Labor people prepared to use a STATE Labor conference against the election of a FEDERAL Labor government? Our best chance for a more humane approach and community is a Labor government and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

When journalists tried to ask him about the shutdown, he simply grinned and said: “Democracy at work.”

Some senior Labor figures argue that shutting down debate and enraging Labor’s green-inclined left-wing supporters risked far greater political damage than letting the debate proceed and potentially giving ammunition to the Coalition.

But The Saturday Paper has been told the right-wing Australian Workers’ Union moved the sudden shutdown motion – which Setka’s left-wing CFMEU supported, along with other members of the breakaway group of Victorian unions now known as the Industrial Left – because it looked as though the pro-refugee motion might actually have enough support to be adopted if it was moved.

Delegates from other unions in the Industrial Left were among those prepared to support the refugee motion. Some say the sudden shutdown was sprung on them. And some say they believe, despite John Setka’s statements defending the move later, that it was sprung on the CFMEU, too.

The Industrial Left voted for it as instructed, but some are now calling that “a mix-up”.

Adopting a motion to bring refugees to settle in Australia would have put the Victorian ALP at odds with federal Labor’s policy platform – which is to resettle them but not to specifically “bring them here” – and emboldened those who want to change it when they get the chance at the party’s now-deferred national conference.

But at the same time, The Saturday Paper has been told there is not the appetite within the federal parliamentary Labor Party – including in the Left – for having the sort of big public fight on asylum seekers that they did three years ago.

Unlike in 2015, many in the parliamentary Left no longer want to oppose turning back asylum-seeker boats, provided it is safe.

They want something done about the situation in the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru and want people resettled, not held indefinitely. But many are not insisting resettlement be in Australia and are willing to wait until after Labor wins government to thrash out the details.

Asked for her view on Sky News, left-wing frontbencher Linda Burney supported some kind of time limit or time line on detaining people.

Few of her colleagues support an arbitrary time limit for fear would-be refugees could be encouraged to get on boats if they knew how long they were to be detained. Burney was later embarrassed when a staff member issued a transcript that omitted her comments.

The new draft platform opposes indefinite detention but does not advocate time limits. It does contain much more detail on Labor’s policy direction than previously.

The platform promises to work towards improving processing arrangements in transit countries and to reinstate the 90-day rule for processing applications. It says those found to be owed protection “will be given permanent protection under the Migration Act 1958” but does not say where, leaving that to be determined by the parliamentary party in government.

Speaking on ABC TV’s Q&A program this week, new Labor MP, Victorian left-wing former union leader Ged Kearney, reiterated her opposition to indefinite detention. But she would not commit Labor to bringing confirmed refugees from offshore detention centres to settle in Australia.

“Look, I think that we would hope that we could get them off those islands as quickly as possible – people off Manus, off Nauru and settled as quickly as possible. And I’m sure that that would be the intention of a Labor government.”

Pressed to clarify whether she was insisting on resettlement in Australia, Kearney said: “Well, not at this point.”

She said her first thought would be to get rid of the Coalition government. But she also revealed the pressure some Labor MPs are under from constituents who do not want refugees brought to Australia.

“There are people that have anxieties, they are angry for whatever reason, and they can’t see that bringing refugees here helps them,” Kearney said.

“You know … when I talk about refugees, they say: ‘Yes, but the schools are full. The hospitals are falling apart. There’s one road to town – it takes me four hours to get to work. Rents are high. My kid has never worked. I’m in insecure work.’ You know, these are real fears and real anxieties and they make people angry. Or they say to me: ‘I’ve been trying to get my brother here from India on a family reunion visa for five years. Why should I let someone come on a boat?’ They’re hard questions and they’re hard things to deal with and I think we have to acknowledge that those things are real and we have to deal with them.”

Within the parliamentary party, views have shifted on the asylum issue since the 2015 ALP national conference.

Then, the factional argument was over whether to insert a clause in the party’s platform to actively reject one of the Coalition’s anti-people-smuggling tools – turning back boats on the water.

The party’s Right faction won out – backed by the Victorian Socialist Left and the CFMEU. The platform did not specify a view on turnbacks, an effective authority to engage in the practice if necessary.

Three years on, while there may still be a push to change that from some sections of the wider party at the next conference, it’s not looking like winning much support.

Deferred from July 28 due to its clash with the newly announced date for five federal byelections, the conference has now been rescheduled for mid December.

There is still strong concern about detaining people offshore and particularly indefinitely, but the issue of turnbacks has lost its potency.

The looming federal election, due sometime between August and next May, has dampened the appetite inside Labor for another big public factional fight.

Nevertheless, there is some deep unhappiness, especially within the party’s Left faction, at the way things were handled last weekend.

Labor regularly boasts that the sometimes-difficult policy debates at its conferences are held in public, in contrast with the Greens, who do not allow media access to their equivalent conference debates.

After the weekend conference, the convener of Labor’s federal parliamentary Left faction, Victorian MP Andrew Giles, issued a statement on his Facebook page praising the state platform with one qualification.

“It is beyond disappointing that some delegates chose to shut down debate on important issues,” Giles wrote. “On Palestine, on women’s retirement incomes, on live exports, on the right to strike and on asylum policy. In Labor we pride ourselves on our culture of debate – of working through tough questions respectfully and openly, not hiding from these or from scrutiny of our positions. We can’t take this for granted. This goes to the heart of our challenge, which isn’t just to set out an alternative policy vision, but to reject cynicism towards politics by building a movement in which all of us can have a say in shaping our future.”

Rather than closing the detention centres, the AWU and CFMEU combined to close down the conference and decree that all remaining motions be debated instead by the party’s administrative committee, later and behind closed doors.

In his address to the Victorian conference, Shorten had vowed to take a tough approach to asylum seekers arriving by sea.

“A Labor government will stop the boats,” Shorten said. “The current government would like to say there’ll be another policy. There won’t be and I’m very committed to make sure the boats don’t start again. We also just happen to think we shouldn’t have kept people in semi-indefinite detention for five years in order to achieve this.”

Refugee advocates argue there is nothing “semi” about indefinite detention and that Labor should commit to something concrete to end it. Even some in the Industrial Left don’t trust the power dynamic at the top of the Labor Party to deliver change once in government if it hasn’t been locked in.

One told The Saturday Paper: “They feel if Labor doesn’t commit to something before they get into government, they’re not going to do anything after.”

But the appearance of division on the asylum issue – with the controversial John Setka involved – is fuelling Coalition attacks.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton used parliament to attack Shorten not for opposing the government’s position on border protection but for supporting it – and having his union backers silence those on the Left who wanted to unwind its policies.

On Shorten’s support from the CFMEU, he said: “What did he have to do to get that deal? What did he have to promise the CFMEU? We will never know … unless he is elected as the next prime minister.”

The move by the AWU and CFMEU at the Victorian conference is casting a shadow over the party’s carefully negotiated draft national platform.

It was a very public reminder to the wider Labor Party – and a vivid illustration to those watching on, who may not have grasped it – that the two unions combined carry considerable sway and intend to use it.

The CFMEU’s backing of the shutdown is being seen within the wider party’s Left– and parts of the Right – as much more about power than policy and an alarming portent of how things might work in government.

The union is firmly backing in Bill Shorten as Labor leader. Along with the AWU, which Shorten formerly led, the CFMEU is acting as his Praetorian Guard against any threats to his leadership.

What it is being promised in return is not clear, although the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and greater work rights are high priorities.

In the run-up to an election, the Coalition seeks to weaken Shorten enough to make him wobble but not so much that he can be knocked over and replaced.

The Coalition does not want to face a newly elected Anthony Albanese, who, according to this week’s Newspoll, is more popular than either Shorten or Turnbull.

Although there is at least as much despair in some parts of the Labor Party about Shorten’s persistent unpopularity as there is about his union connections, there is no active move to replace him with Albanese or anyone else, and even if there were, very little time left to do it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 2, 2018 as "Inside Labor’s refugee strategy ".

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