When ships used to transport refugees are detained off the Australian coast, the current practice is to burn them. A better approach would be to strip them down for their timbers, which can then be used to make the coffins we will soon require for the inmates of our detention centres, and those in peril on the seas. The demonstrations at Woomera and elsewhere have now escalated to hunger strikes and symbolic self-mutilation — the sewing of lips together. At the time of writing there has already been one attempt at a mass suicide protest and unless there are further dramatic changes in policy there will be others, and they will succeed. On the seas, the government is considering legislating against the most basic reciprocal condition of seafaring, the obligation of a ship to go to another in distress. This is a feature of global human society so basic that it survived even the iciest depths of the Cold War; it is the very premise on which the possibility of seafaring is based. In its determination to prolong and enforce the absurd pseudo-crisis of ship arrivals, the government has taken us to a position uniquely outside the global community, with even organs such as the Wall Street Journal condemning the ruthlessness of such policies.
With its determination to see the situation in the camps played to its horrifying conclusion, the Coalition appears to have brutalised itself to an unprecedented degree. The disappearance of its liberal faction means that there are no internal checks on its increasingly bunkered, Nixonian actions. Now surely would be the time for mass, public resignations by people of conscience who still find themselves with party cards. More importantly the question must now swing round, finally and decisively, on the ALP. Those who hope that some mass public movement outside of the parties will turn round the public position on asylum-seekers may disagree, but they hope in vain: the government has brutalised the public discourse to such a degree that even mass deaths are not likely to significantly lessen support for harsh anti-refugee policies. Although increased militancy from church groups and some basic expressions of unified condemnation from peak-body multicultural groups is also necessary, only a split in the bipartisan support for such policies will begin to drive a wedge into this solid front.
Such a move will determine not only the direction that the struggle over refugees takes, but also the final form of the ALP. Born from a confluence of left and chauvinist nationalist groups and thinking, it dispensed first with the latter, and then with much of the socialist economic content of the former. Now it has drifted back into a chauvinist style, and, at the state level, courted the politics of authoritarian reaction. From one angle it now resembles less a left-liberal labour party, than something like the old Peronist movement in Argentina — an authoritarian grouping with some participation from organised labour. This issue contains various arguments about the manner in which its core economic and social policies could be renovated, and the best traditions of the party tapped into. But none of this will be of any importance if it cannot give solid political form to a basic position against basic brutality. Should it fail this challenge the question will not be what is it for, but what is it at all. The strictures of globalisation do not absolve centre-left parties of their obligation to foreground a moral political response. They demand it, as the necessary condition of being a party at all, rather than a mere brand of undifferentiated power.
Guy Rundle is co-editor of Arena Magazine.