Understanding why it is important to become involved a campaign of civil resistance depends on three points.
1) The Labor Party (and by extension the Australian Parliament) is not a viable avenue for ending the criminal bipartisan refugee detention regime.
2) People are entitled to change society without the approval of a majority of people when it means addressing an active humanitarian crisis.
3) Martin Luther King's, iconic model of civil disobedience and direct action, openly involved demonstrators intentionally acting as an annoying minority and not a pre-approved majority as is often mistakenly believed. The stated purpose of Kings demonstrators was to deliberately create tension so as to create a situation which the mainstream society found unbearable (not appealing).
This third point is important more for its implications rather than because we should feel any specific inclination to mimic King's campaign exactly. The reason it is important to address this issue is in order to challenge the false framing of his resistance that is used to shame modern activists into cooperation with the refugee detention regime.
The first two points are important because it is only once it is understood that there is no possibility for meaningful parliamentary reform that civil resistance becomes necessary. And it is only once it is understood that we are entitled to act without the approval of the majority of the population that civil resistance becomes a viable option. Finally, it is only once resistance is considered both necessary and viable, that specific answers as to how it might be carried out will become relevant for most people.
So instead of talking to people about the practical issues of how to resist, we have to start with the political arguments for why civil resistance is necessary in the first place.
This starts by acknowledging that most political campaigns to end refugee detention are designed (in one way or another) to try to convince the bipartisan detention regime to change voluntarily through logical argument. But CSB does not think that this is possible because a fundamental assumption of these strategies is that the oppression of the refugees is the result of some type of misunderstanding. This in turn implies that the introduction of better information could be benificial as though if people or the government had a better understanding, then they would change the way they vote.
The problem with this strategy is the powerful (whether they be privileged social groups or politicians) do not often oppress people because they are confused, they do it because they materially benefit from the oppression (at least in the short term.) By “calling your local MP” (in whichever form) we are not telling them anything the criminal Labor and Liberal political dynasties do not already know. But politicians from both parties benefit enormously from people making these types of efforts to engage with them because it helps the them to maintain the illusion that there is some confusion around what is going on, and most importantly, it reinforces their role as the gatekeepers of any potential change in policy. The more invested social movements become in parliamentary political outcomes, the more powerful politicians are seen to be. The more powerful they appear, the more it feels like nothing could happen without their approval.
But this is a scam. Faith in political parties is not the solution. Having faith in the ALP was the origin of this problem. However, by putting the refugee rights movement in a situation, where it is so desperate for even a glimmer of hope, the Labor Party is able to present itself as a solution to the very problem it not only started, but which it also continues to have a very obvious and significant vested interest in maintaining.
For example, a rumour, which will often be spread around activist circles, is that someone has spoken to a “Labor party insider.” This insider will allude to a significant (but usually unnamed), section of the Labor party that secretly wants to agree with the social movement. Details on what this agreement actually consist of are usually kept vague. Just the very idea that politicians might secretly be listening to us is supposed to be enough for us to instantly see the importance in trying to help the Labor Party get elected yet again. After all, it is argued even though they can't help us right now, they will of course make good on this vague, unspoken, anonymous promise, that they have broken every single time they have ever had an opportunity to keep it. Obviously.
This rumour gets spread, no doubt in part because there actually are people inside the Labor Party who say this type of thing to people. But that doesn't mean we should accept this idea, or leave its implications unexamined. It is important to recognise that these rumours frame the bipartisan detention regime in a way which is hugely beneficial to the political parties and not at all historically accurate.
But the reason why these rumours persist, in spite of all the evidence against them, is that they dangle a very enticing metaphorical carrot in front of the social movement. This carrot is the idea that the Labor Party could solve their problem, almost instantly, if only they had the chance. Things will be different this time – they promise!
What is important about this, is that it moves the responsibility for the atrocities off of the Labor Party and onto ordinary people. The premise of the rumour is that the Labor Party desperately wants to be better, but it is voters who force them to be bad. This completely rewrites history.
In reality, it was the Labor Party who were the ones who sold the Australian people on the idea of mandatory detention in the first place. The Labor Party also helped sell the Australian people on the idea of offshore processing. At every opportunity that Labor has had to improve the situation of asylum seekers, they have instead made things much worse. To this day, Julia Gilard stands by the horrible atrocities she committed against refugees. While Kevin Rudd opportunistically lectures Liberal Party politicians for doing exactly the same types of things that he did when he was in power.
Unfortunately, because the suffering of the asylum seekers is so horrific there will always be a strong desire to believe any story which implies that the torture could be over soon, no matter how divorced from reality the claim may be.
Not only is the idea of immediate relief very appealing but it goes even beyond simple appeal. Given that most people have no viable conception of how to oppose a government policy, in any other form, except through some type of political campaigning, it isn't even really a genuine decision for most people to believe that the ALP is coming to the rescue, because without this premise they would have no political agency at all.
Therefore, it is very easy for Labor Party insiders to offer this type of self-serving conspiracy theory to social movements because they know that activists will help spread it around due to the fact that both groups benefit from the rumour. It gives the activists an opportunity to pretend like they might have some political relevance and it helps the Labor Party maintain some legitimacy as being socially progressive, despite advocating and orchestrating more than two decades of refugee kidnapping without apology, or a single fuck given.
The first step to discrediting parliamentary campaigning, as effective strategies for ending refugee detention, is to unquestionably establish, that mandatory detention and offshore processing are quite literally crimes against humanity. They have always been this way from their very inception. Which means it is likely many former prime ministers (from *both* major parties) are human rights criminals.
This may sound controversial, but the reality is that there is never a valid reason to detain people simply for being asylum seekers. That's why it had never been done before Labor proposed the idea in 1993. From the very moment the ALP suggested it, it was always explicitly intended to send a message. This message was to be sent by violently suppressing a civilian population from exercising their basic human rights. In this way, these policies have always been a form of racist political terrorism and a humanitarian crisis.
They are not simply bad or “extreme.” They are not a mistake. They are deliberate atrocities. The Labor and Liberal political dynasties have a massive shared interest in making sure that their abuse of refugees is never framed in terms of a “humanitarian crisis” or a “civil emergency.” These terms are too much of a threat because they attribute an appropriate amount of urgency to the situation. Which means that people too high up in the Australian political oligarchy could get into too much trouble if the detention regime was viewed through this framing. In the eyes of the regime and the general public, offshore processing and mandatory detention must always remain simply a “controversial policy” and not be allowed to become seen as a crime against humanity.
An example of the hesitancy to acknowledge the gravity of these crimes can be seen in the refugee rights movement, through the evolution of recent hashtags relating to the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. The original demand put forward, which initially found widespread support was, “Dutton to the Hague.” But more recently, when the case for Peter Dutton to actually face human rights criminal prosecution was at its strongest, this powerful demand got downgraded, to the toothless slogan, “Sack Dutton.”
Perhaps more of the movement is more comfortable with Sack Dutton, because the slogan, 'Dutton to the Hague' raises some implications which are very uncomfortable for the progressive left. Specifically that there are many Labor politicians who should *also* be taken to the Hague. In fact, in many ways more or less the entire Australian political class should be on trial for these atrocities in a way no dissimilar from the process which took place after the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
Once it has been acknowledged that this is a 25 year bipartisan regime, being criminally supported by two powerful political dynasties, it becomes obvious why the only change that can come from within the system is to double down and escalate the crimes further.
The Australian government, has literally taken hostages, and more or less, been murdering them slowly, in order to send a political message. This means that they can't back out now, and say, ““oops,” my bad. I forgot you're not supposed to criminally violate people's human rights through institutionalised barbarism.” Once you start killing hostages you have gone well past the point of getting 'let off with a ticket' and the politicians know this as well as anyone. Neither party can afford to let the general public see the refugees as fully human.
For how much blood there is on everyone's hands in Canberra, they do not care if they have to sack a thousand Peter Dutton's. They would much rather do that then see a single Australian politician before the International Criminal Court. After all, this would set a very dangerous precedent for lots of the political class.
This is why both the Labor party, and the Liberal party, benefit from the slogan, Sack Dutton, because it plays perfectly into their good-cop, bad-cop routine. But 'Dutton to the Hague' is a problem because that could lead to Rudd To The Hague, and Howard To The Hague, and Gilard To The Hague and Abbot To The Hague. The lot of them are made uncomfortable by all this Hague talk.
On the other hand, SackDutton poses absolutely no threat because the Liberal Party's brand is built on accepting the blame for torturing the refugees. So if the Liberal Party has to dismiss an immigration minister for being too hard on refugees, this simply rallies their base and gives credence to the essential lie which maintains the detention regime. This lie is that the Liberals are so bad that Labor could be some sort of remedy. Once they have agreement on this obviously false premise, both political parties can continue to hustle the refugee rights movement indefinitely. SackDutton protects the bipartisan detention regime because it massively downplays the gravity and extent of the crimes that are being committed.
So the first political point that we need to establish is that mandatory detention and offshore processing are not just “bad policies.” Instead, they are an entrenched humanitarian crisis and a civil emergency, which both major parties are now materially and criminally invested in perpetuating.
Once this has been established, it dramatically undermines the idea that lobbying is going to have any effect because it is obvious that such powerful political dynasties would never voluntarily allow themselves to be held accountable for such far-reaching atrocities.
To further buttress this point, we can look at the example of the social movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The important lesson about this Australian & international social movement was that it showed that simply having an overwhelming majority of people actively on the side of the movement was not enough to significantly influence either parties policies. Despite being the largest social movement in the history of the country, both major political parties basically ignored it. This is because championing the anti-war cause would mean challenging the existing order too fundamentally. This then raises the question how can ordinary people force the government to be accountable if not through awareness raising and electoral campaigning?
This is the question which Can't Stand By attempts to answer. But without first realising that awareness raising and electoral politics are dead ends, there is no reason to consider civil resistance in the first place. But before questions of how to resist are raised, it is often important to address some illusions about social change which are a hang over of the parliamentary politics model of social change.
2 & 3)
In particular, it is important to address the fact that even most people who realise that there has to be some sort of extra-parliamentary resistance to government policies, still often believe that this resistance, must conform to the rules of parliamentary politics. In particular they believe that all major decisions of the movement must be made with the support of the majority of the population.
But this is not at all historically true or politically defensible. Waiting for majority approval to address an atrocity is like ignoring someone having a heart attack in the middle of a town hall meeting because their name isn't on the speaking list. Some things are supposed to supersede polite formalities. Human rights atrocities are one of those things.
But the way that activists often justify arguing that we can not act without a majority is by falsely asserting that this is how leaders like Martin Luther King organised their campaigns of direct action and civil disobedience.
Society likes to pretend that Dr. King campaigned in a way which does not at all resemble his own clear accounts of his activities. Society likes to imagine a sanitised version that may as well be called Friendly Martin's White Approved Authentic Campaign of Civil Disobedience (TM). The idea that is pushed is that the demonstrators worked to abstractly convince a majority of the society to agree both with their political cause and their methods of resistance. Then after rational dialogue had led everyone to consensus, and a clear majority was neatly attained, demonstrators then peacefully marched on to the streets at which point (due to their superior numbers, and the logic of their argument) the government realised it had no choice but to change its position. This is the general formula which activists argue that King used to great success. But if you actually read Dr King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, the way he describes his campaigns differs significantly and fundamentally from this framing.
The first point of obvious contention is that in the letter from Birmingham Jail Dr. King said he had never participated in a campaign of direct action that was perceived as well timed by the broader society. Not once. Instead, rather than using a majority, his strategy was explicitly designed to be used by an otherwise powerless minority. Civil resistance is about recognising that there is an emergency taking place which over rides civilian normalcy.
Dr. King specifically describes the participants in his campaigns of nonviolent direct action, as being “gad flys.” Originally the term referred to a fly that bites livestock but it is also used metaphorically to describe a person who annoys or criticizes others in order to provoke them into action. King also specifically talks about his group deliberately creating and causing social tension. Not alleviating it. In fact, he talks about causing so much social tension that it becomes unbearable for the majority of people.
So in addition to discrediting parliamentary reformism, it is important to reclaim this stolen history and expose the fact that King's civil disobedience and direct action involved small minorities of disruptive people deliberately antagonising the majority of people. Once these points have been established, the types of questions can begin to be asked which Can't Stand By is attempting to help find answers for.
Letter From Birmingham Jail...