The Art of Politics: reflections on the Australian Labor Party, Refugees and Climate Change

Examining the tough relationships between mainstream progressive parties and movements in Australia, host Amanda Tattersall looks back at her own experience. She tells the story of the 2001-2004 refugee movement’s attempt to shift the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and examines what worked, and what was learnt. Lessons are drawn for the climate movement today. This piece was also published by Fabian Review in February 2022.

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You can find the original article online at Australian Fabian Review here.
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Today on ChangeMakers – we are going to begin the year looking backwards. In Australia this is an election year and the stakes are high when it comes to big issues like climate change. But what can we learn from elections past?

This episode examines the vexed electoral and social politics that emerged in Australia around refugees. From the 2001 Tampa crisis to the Labor for Refugees movement – I tried hard to fix it by changing the Australian Labor Party. At the time the ALP worked in lock step with the Conservative Government locking up people fleeing persecution.  My goal was to make the ALP a better ally for change – from the inside. At that time I was a Labor Party member.

We did many good things, but we also learnt hard lessons about what it takes to move mainstream political parties. We learnt a lot about slow and fast politics, and also about small and big. Many of the problems I encountered then haven’t changed that much. Social movements and parties like the Labor Party continue to have strained relationships – how can experiences from the past recast strategy today?

Today’s episode teases out my reflections in the hope that we can build more powerful relationships when working on issues that divide us. The episode was also published in the journal Australian Fabians Review which you can find at www.f -a -b -i -a – n-

So – let’s go



I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Series 6 of Changemakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world.

As well as long form episodes like this we feature ChangeMaker Chats – which are interviews with ChangeMakers. We also have stories about social change campaigns from around the world.

We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney dot E D U dot A U backslash policy dash lab. 

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Just over twenty years ago the Tampa, a Norwegian Cargo vessel carrying 438 refugees fleeing the Taliban, sailed closer and closer to Australia’s Christmas Island. In the weeks, months and years that followed, social movements in support of asylum seekers grew. Like climate change now, the battles around how we treat refugees were moral as well as fraught with political challenges. Because of what these debates share, this earlier fight has a lot to teach the Labor Party and the climate movement and those interested in the climate change battleground today.

In the wake of the Tampa crisis and the horror 2001 election that followed I helped convene Labor for Refugees in NSW. I was from the Left of the Labor Party and had cut my teeth in protests and occupations in the grungy heights of the university student movement. In late 2001 I was introduced to Paul Howes, a young upstart organiser working at the Labor Council of NSW (now Unions NSW). We quickly struck up an ‘odd couple’ partnership. He was in the Labor Right, dressing in suits that were slightly too big, wielding a sharp tongue and carrying clear ambition for future leadership. My Left credentials left me with a somewhat laconic ideological slouch, coupled with an easy-to-battle desire to be right. Nonetheless we found common cause when it came to refugees. Joined by John Robertson – the freshly appointed leader of Labor Council of NSW – we started an ‘all guns blazing’ attack on the Labor Party’s lockstep dance with John Howard that had seen Australia rapidly exorcise thousands of islands from its national jurisdiction, establish off-shore detention centres described as the pacific solution,’ and embrace a politics of racial division in our regions and the suburbs of our cities.

Labor for Refugees was big vision politics. Committed to the seriousness of the Labor Party’s formal processes, we drafted bold letters and sent them off diligently to every MP and ALP branch – every source of formal power that we could identify. In early 2002 we got our first fiery return from vigilante MP Mark Latham – a five-page stream of consciousness that revealed more about his eventual choice to join the far right One Nation Party than the ALP’s brief decision to elect him as Opposition Leader.

As activists for a righteous cause we knew that we were not alone in this fight. Protests in the city; fiery satire on the television; a heightened protest vote for the Greens; emboldened refugee advocacy from NGOs – plenty of people were standing up to be counted. Thousands came together at a silent protest in Sydney on Palm Sunday 2002, by far the largest refugee protest held so far. Yet as powerful as these mobilisations were, they also heralded signs of challenges to come. The movement skewed inner-city, university educated, supported by people who had economic security. Protest drew together those who were already convinced of the problem, but what about those who were not?

At the time I thought the answer to this question was to push forward with more bigness. Labor for Refugees created a highest common denominator vision – no mandatory detention, an end to Temporary Protection Visas, restoring the right of refugee applicants to claim refugee status and to appeal those decisions under administrative law. We were unrelenting. By May 2002 we were in a negotiation with the then Shadow Minister for Immigration Julia Gillard over the content of our position. We had drafted motions to take to ALP Conferences in NSW, and new Labor for Refugee groups in other places like Queensland, the ACT and WA were doing the same. 

Fast and big delivered surprising initial victories, at least symbolically. There was a set of domino decisions kicked off one weekend in May at the NSW ALP Conference in 2002. A new policy emerged, arising from the ALP’s grassroots and sanctioned by state Labor Party conferences upended the policies that the previous Labor Government had taken to the 2001 election (and frankly the ALP’s refugee policies of the previous decade) and to move in a radical new direction.

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But big is easy to say; it is much harder to sustain. I knew how to do the numbers needed to get a motion through the ALP Conference. I did not know how to count, let alone build, a political majority across the country that could embrace compassion for refugees through an electoral cycle. Refugee policy was about justice for refugees, but it was increasingly clear that being right was not enough. Pejoratives wouldn’t cut the complexity of pressures that were blocking substantive change. The politics of refugees was about race, but it was also about fear. It was about insecurity; the habitual addiction to a culture of blame when things aren’t going well. 

Big politics is tested by the greatest test of all, time. Anyone can give a grand speech. But can those same people sustain and build a political movement that escalates pressure slowly when the cameras aren’t rolling? Sustained escalation requires a different kind of politics entirely. A politics that I learnt later. Escalation lies in the art of the slow, where people, groups, interests, networks – those in concert and those in conflict – are powerfully negotiated. 

Years after this battle, in 2007, I began to build the Sydney Alliance, a broad-based coalition of religious organisations, unions and community organisations that continues to fight for the common good in the city. It was slow; built on a small, more intense political practice, that of the relational meeting – where people meet one to one. Initial relational meetings provide a space for two people, often very different people, to explore who they are and what makes them tick. The meeting puts to one side, initially, the specific issues, passions, or ‘message points’ that usually sit at the front your mind, the triggers for easy conflict. Instead, relational meetings start with the question of why do we care in the first place? Where two people ask each other to share the stories and experiences that have shaped us. This slow process creates space to explore connections that might exist between our differences. That is how the Sydney Alliance built deep and genuine relationships between the Jewish Board of Deputies and the CFMEU Construction Union, or between the Cancer Council and Muslim Women’s Australia.  

Slow, small politics doesn’t grab easy headlines, nor is it particularly tweetable, but it has a radical quality. After several years of hard organising; thousands of relational meetings and hundreds of people participating in training, the Sydney Alliance built a rich network of communities willing to work together to change their city. But in ways that echo the tensions between coal regions and urban communities, or the weaknesses in the relationships between the union and climate movements more broadly, the Alliance included organisations whose conflict felt almost insurmountable.  Yet, in the Alliance these conflicts were navigated through the slowness of the approach. Slow created space for people to honestly talk about the tensions between them. Strong inter-personal connection changed the dynamic for tough conversations. This is what happened – frequently – because we knew we needed to understand the hard stuff to be able to make real change. 

Slow politics allowed us to explore the dimensions of conflict. When politics is in a fast mode, difference swiftly polarises – ‘you are with me, or you are against me.’ But at a different speed, conflict can be a moment for deep understanding. The root meaning of confrontation is ‘forehead to forehead.’ Exploring differences of opinion requires closeness. Its why digital rows feel so unsatisfying, verbal bombs thrown from a distance miss the real intimacy of why people disagree. I didn’t realise this when I battled for refugee rights; I learnt it slowly, eventually.

My work on refugee politics back in 2003 and early 2004 remained big and fast. While unions were involved in Labor for Refugees, we didn’t take a lot of time to engage with members – listening to where people were at. We didn’t seek to bring more people into the Labor Party to help us advance a different cause for refugees. Instead, we rested on our laurels and our capacity to mobilise those who already supported our cause. We were comforted by our righteousness and the knowledge that it would be all sorted out at an ALP National Conference not too far away. 

By 2004, our big vision for refugee justice faltered. The ALP faced an election, and at its National Conference in January 2004 ALP Leaders decided to end the refugee insurrection so it could ‘possibly’ have a chance of beating John Howard. In a darkened convention centre hall in Sydney’s Darling Harbour our calls for a big compassionate policy were routed. The numbers were done, and we lost.

Nothing crushes a big vision like bigger power, and in 2004 Labor for Refugees succumbed. We had been out-organised. We had lost the conference vote for sure, but anyone who thinks the Labor Party is run by conference votes hasn’t spent much time in the space. The truth was that we hadn’t worked out how to build a social politics, a majority politics, that could support refugees. We hadn’t worked out how to show, explain, negotiate or change how refugees wouldn’t compete or undermine local jobs. 

The fast politics that had felt so urgent and pressing didn’t solve the political problem then, and despite many good people continuing to fight for justice, the battles around refugee rights haven’t produced lasting change. Australia continues to lock up people seeking asylum, in hotels in Kangaroo Point or on Manus Island. The ‘Biloela family’s’ has been held hostage to our political indifference. Time hasn’t overcome the weaknesses of a relentlessly fast strategy. It hasn’t overcome the culture or fear or blame that held back better political leadership. Only new strategy can do this.

Lots of lessons have been learnt between the early refugee battles and the now advanced work on climate change. Climate leaders are less likely to rely on being right and telling people to ‘listen to the science’ and instead talk about people’s fears around jobs. The art of slow politics has taken hold in parts of the labour movement and in much of the climate movement. We have unions like the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union initiating the Hunter Jobs Alliance, and other unions like the United Workers Union and the Victorian Trades Hall leading the Real Deal project that works with a range of Australia’s fossil fuel communities. The Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) has worked for years to build a climate constituency inside the ALP, and more recently the Student Strike for Climate has drawn unions into public action around climate change. We have plenty of former union leaders now leading the climate movement – for instance in both the Queensland and NSW Conservation Councils. But you know what the climate movement doesn’t have – a genuine, difficult, confrontational, powerful relationship with miners in coal mining communities, and most importantly with the CFMEU Mining Division.

The climate movement struggles, in part, with the legacies of fast thinking. The climate change clock is ticking and fast strategy looks like a logical response. But ‘fast’ brings with it the you versus us polarity – and so far that has played out badly in fossil fuel communities. You could go so far to say that ‘fast’ has been weaponised by the climate skeptics and fossil fuel billionaires to justify inaction. Even after the outcome of the 2019 Federal Election, the mainstream climate movement seems resigned to mounting a case for change that doesn’t involve direct engagement with coal workers. 

But the refugee fights of twenty years ago suggest that this is not good strategy. Big vision is nice, but if it isn’t backed up with small, slow work – it will struggle to succeed. Ever. The 2019 Election failed to address the issue of climate change because too many movements entered the debate treating Australia as one big homogenous constituency. Communities reliant on coal hit back. Fed a fiction that they could stop climate change by voting against parties supporting climate action, they did exactly that. Division and fear are easy to create; trust, cohesion and shared plans are much harder. Small work starts in place. It starts with relationships. Trust starts where people are at, and in many coal communities, ‘climate change’ isn’t the first concern even if it is the elephant in the room. But the climate movement does itself a disservice when it treats coal workers as an elephant in the room. The refugee debate shows you that polarised communities won’t heal themselves. Slow small work is required, and it is better done now than in a decade’s time.

For many politically active people, especially those in cities and amongst ALP members, climate change generates deep levels of anxiety. There is a desperate desire for action, and an overwhelming frustration with the Coalition and the ALP for their inadequate leadership. I don’t disagree. But my experience of trying to wave a big magic wand at moral problems has taught me that the solution is not simply in the hands of elected representatives. While any government can make a transition easier by directing funding, regulation and incentives to the right places, politics – thankfully – is also about the people. Equally, while it would be useful for politicians to stop spreading lies about climate change – it is equally problematic for people seeking climate action to pretend that there are not real fears, interests and concerns in fossil fuel communities, and across Australia as a whole, that need to be addressed.

Learning from the refugee movement, the climate movement would do well to add more slow to its fast and more small to its big. Climate action is not just about big change in how we manage our energy, transport or agriculture, it is a time where we can make big changes in how our democracy works so people can help shape what is an uncertain and frightening future. But a bigger democracy is built small – one to one, community to community, where relationships and listening allow us to knit together a stronger civil society. It is a place where inequality and injustice – from dispossession to fears around economic transition – can be redressed. While slow might feel frustrating, as we approach 2030 the refugee debate shows that if we do not do this right, we may never build the justice we need. And climate action is something that humanity cannot afford to fail.

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