The Guardian, Friday 21 February 2014. Read the original here.
Regardless of who was directly behind this week’s horrifying attacks on asylum seekers in Manus, the ultimate responsibility lies with Australia’s bipartisan refugee policy. As a result, many people are agonising over how to play a role in ending Australia’s escalating violence against refugees.
In this context, a natural thought is that contacting MPs directly is an effective form of political action. After all, anyone can write a letter, thereby entering into immediate contact with politicians’ staff. Accordingly, social media has been awash with people posting about the messages they have left Scott Morrison’s office.
Where lives are as starkly at stake as they are on Manus – and, less visibly, as they have been every day since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 – it is literally vital to have an accurate analysis of how ordinary people can contribute to progressive change. Here, however, our natural reasoning about how to behave politically risks falling victim to highly misleading illusions.
Letter writing and similar forms of private individual lobbying are predicated on a logic of personal appeal or persuasion. They rest on the idea that if enough people individually express their opinion strongly enough, decision-makers are bound to heed them.
Deep down, the inaccuracy of that conclusion must be obvious to almost everyone who writes in to government. Indeed, people’s own statements suggest that they are often more motivated by the desire to vent their frustration, distress and anger than they are by any belief, however fleeting, that their message will have an impact.
Morrison doesn’t need letters from voters to know that his policies aren’t universally supported. As his declarations make clear, he’s certainly not going to change course on the strength of a few emails, particularly given where overall public opinion on asylum stands at the moment.
On this question as on others, it’s clear that the view that politicians essentially represent voters is mistaken, despite the barrage of spin governments erect to give just that impression.
On asylum and many other issues, politicians’ real role is far from representing or giving policy expression to a pre-existing public opinion. Instead, on asylum issues, governments manifestly lead opinion. After all, most Australians have never met a refugee. All they know about the issue comes from the narratives cynically moulded by leaders from what we persist in calling both “sides” of politics, subsequently uncritically reflected by a complicit corporate media.
A breakthrough on refugees will not arise from a logic of private appeal or persuasion: governments will only respond to a logic of public pressure. For that reason, public forms of opposition – demonstrations, petitions, phone blockades – are the only conceivable way forward. The activist part of the refugee rights movement – groups like the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) in Sydney, of which I’m a member – have exactly this as their political strategy.
These kinds of political expression are inherently activist, in the sense that, since they take place in public – and therefore attract attention, including from the media – they motivate new people to become involved. This, not representation, is what politics is really about. Representation, which is predicated on the inactivity of the vast majority of the public, is the opposite of true politics.
Many people feel resistance to engaging in even mild forms of public activism, like participating in demonstrations. There is a marked conservative tendency, even among people who consider themselves as progressive, to stigmatise an alleged “protest left” which, supposedly, can do nothing other than kick and scream, and which often disconcerts newcomers through the variety of different causes that it attracts to any one protest event. Alternatively, protest is excluded on the alleged grounds of its inefficacy – with the usual obligatory reference to the failure of the massive 2003 anti-war protests.
These objections should not be given the time of day in any serious discussion. All political action, even that of the notionally most powerful figures in a society, is constrained and may fail – just ask Kevin Rudd. Nor should anyone imagine that attending one or two public protests will magically transform refugee politics. What is obviously needed is a determined campaign of public activism, in which people from all walks of life, representing all kinds of different and incompatible interests, regularly participate in and initiate protest actions, and encourage others to join them.
Just as the 2003 protests failed to avert the invasion of Iraq, but permanently marked public opinion – as visible today in widespread public opposition to western military adventurism – so too the success of future Australian asylum activism will have to be measured on a time-scale that looks just slightly beyond the current news cycle.
In many everyday situations we can often get what we want simply by making our preferences known to others. It is an illusion to think that this logic generalises to politics. The only hope for change in asylum policy is an overtly political refugee movement capable of exerting real public pressure – like the one promoted by Sydney RAC and similar campaign groups. This Saturday, for instance, Sydney RAC has organised a protest outside Tony Abbott’s office in Manly.
To change Australian refugee policy, progressive people will have to do more than tell politicians they aren’t happy: they will have to act, and act politically. Expressing an opinion is easy. Preventing more of this week’s Manus savagery requires us to do more.