The morning after the Australian Labor Party voted to change their party platform to allow for controversial boat tow-backs was a bleak one for refugee activists.
Someone with darker humour might have found amusement in the timing of the first ever ‘National Refugee Rights Conference’ scheduled for that morning at the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation building on the edge of the city.
The schedule had been configured months in advance to coincide with the ALP Conference. Dozens of activists came from around the country to hold placards supporting refugees outside the ALP event. Supposedly it wasn’t a “protest” but we will get to that later.
It was one of those cold Melbourne mornings where the bright sun does little. The workshops started at 10am, leaving no mercy for those of us who had made something of our Saturday night. I was hardly the only latecomer staggering in half an hour after the start time.
A plain white piece of paper with black-marker pointed attendees towards the entrance, stuck over the top of a placard from the day before. Upstairs the group workshops were already in full swing, dozens of people dispersed around the various discussion groups. I naturally gravitated towards the Using the Media workshop, but in retrospect the Building Support Among Unions one would have had a particularly interesting potency that day.
The workshop was full of the usual decrying Murdoch and the how to gain traction in the social media age type discussion. But we also touched on some important points around privacy and sensitivity that makes reporting on refugee stories so difficult.
There was also a sober acknowledgment of the difficulty in corroborating stories beyond rumours, for both activists and journalists in the cone-of-silence that has enveloped the Scott Morrision/Peter Dutton Immigration Department.
After the workshops, over coffee and biscuits, the activists mingled and shared their various campaigns. Pamphlets were passed around for the next weekly meeting, the next rally and the next group watching of the new season of SBS’s ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’.
After the break the group, which now numbered over a couple of hundred, gathered in the hall to hear Maurice Blackburn’s tireless social justice refugee lawyer Katie Robinson run through on-going challenges–from the courts to various aspects of the government’s offshore processing regime.
She had recently been part of a challenge to the legality of the government’s funding of offshore processing. Realising the potentially massive legal defeat that may have awaited them, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had scrambled on the last sitting days of parliament to pass new legislation and close the avenue for challenge. Labor helped pass the bill.
“You know you’re on to something when the department is so scared it starts writing up new legislation”, Robinson told the crowd, drawing cries of “shame” from various quarters of the room.
Katie looked tired but strong and determined, as she always does. She ran through different cases they are trying to use to challenge the government and temporary injunctions to stop deportations until cases are complete. There is a brief celebration of a significant case that stopped deportation of babies born in Australian hospitals last year, but all in all it is a report of an ongoing legal war with victories few and far between.
Next up was Ian Rintol, the spokesperson for Refugee Action Collective (RAC), the group that organised the event. Dressed in a humble blue cardigan with an aged air of authority, he gave a rousing speech imploring everyone not to give up hope.
““Last time we made the mistake of going quiet for Labor around 2007. This time we won’t make the same mistake. We’re not going to go quiet,” he said, to rousing applause that fired up the audience.”
Rintol observed that at least 40% of the Labor conference took a stand against boat turn-backs. He says the movement is growing, hardening.
“Last time we made the mistake of going quiet for Labor around 2007. This time we won’t make the same mistake. We’re not going to go quiet,” he said, to rousing applause that fired up the audience.
Outside during lunch break crowds bustled around Victoria Market; it was easy to forget anything is happening at all. Naru, Manus Island, even Broadmeadows detention centre in the outer suburbs feels a world away.
After lunch leaders of the RAC groups from different states reported back on what they’ve been doing in their home cities: the campaigns they have organised. There were many different points raised about how groups interact with Labor, amid the Queensland RAC representative’s proud reporting on protesting outside Peter Dutton’s office.
By 2:30 the floor had been opened to a Q and A and it quickly descended into chaos. Various people attacked Labor and said there is no hope in working with them; that the fight should be concentrated against them. Others argued for a constructive approach working with those in Labor who are supportive and want to build incremental positive changes.
Ian took a dig at the RAC Queensland rep, who spent the rest of the discussion staring straight ahead looking on the verge of tears. The morning’s sky had clouded over and light rain droplets hit the outside window. Any hope of ending the session on a note of solidarity had gone.
Someone from Labor for Refugees got up and made an impassioned plea for building support within the party. Someone from Socialist Alternative called RAC spineless for refusing to chant “shame Labor, shame” and instead only chanting “shame Shorten, shame” at the rally the day before.
It was a rally, because RAC had previously agreed not to ‘protest’ the Labor conference but to ‘rally’ outside it. The crowd piped up now and then and heckled down various points they don’t agree with.
In the middle of it all someone got up to promote his organisation’s campaign for refugees and non-refugee to have joint picnics all across Australia.
The adjudicator eventually put an end to the madness with a note of ‘while we may disagree on tactics at least we are all fighting the good fight’. Someone unfurled a refugee banner and everyone gathered behind it holding their fists in the air for the photo opp. But the chant of “free, free the refugees” has an air of routine to it.
Outside on Elizabeth Street again the Sunday afternoon rain had lifted, traffic was scarce and the crowds from the market had mostly gone home except for the occasional older couple lingering at the shop windows. Tomorrow is just another work day, after all.
Jarni Blakkarly is a Melbourne based free-lance journalist. He has written for Al Jazeera, Crikey, Agence France Presse, New Matilda and the Griffith Review among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly