Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is playing the race card in a desperate attempt to win the election he has called for 7 September.
Labor Party leader Rudd took over after pushing out his predecessor Julia Gillard in June. The party is still trailing in the polls.
Rudd hopes that his “PNG solution”—to send refugees who arrive in Australia to Papua New Guinea—will boost his popularity.
The plan is to pay Australia’s poorest neighbour to process and resettle refugees. No refugee would even be allowed to set foot in Australia.
Rudd is trying to outflank the conservative opposition to his right. But angry protests broke out across Australia immediately after the announcement last week.
Some 2,000 marched through Sydney and up to 5,000 in Melbourne. Slogans ranged from “Deport Labor” to “I ain’t afraid of no boats”.
The socialist magazine Solidarity has argued, “Since Rudd became leader, Labor has gone up in the polls, but there is no sign that the PNG solution has made him more popular; in fact the latest poll shows that the Greens have gone up 2 percent.
“It is crucial that Labor is challenged on the idea that it needs to be anti-refugee to win the election.”
Rudd wants to send refugees to a detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Former Tory prime minister John Howard set up the centre to dump refugees there with his “Pacific solution” in 2001.
A number of unions have passed resolutions against Rudd’s plan and big national protests have been called for Saturday 24 August.
Howard faced similar anger. He won an election in 2001 but systematic mass campaigning later defeated his plan.
Socialists initiated Refugee Action Collectives (RAC) to counter Howard’s racism, shift public opinion and break Labor’s anti-refugee stance.
“It wasn’t going to be easy,” wrote Ian Rintoul in Solidarity. “The Labor leadership backed every piece of anti-refugee legislation the Liberals put up during their first six years in power.
“The RAC groups had a particular orientation to organised workers in the trade union movement—firstly to provide an antidote where Howard sought to sow racism most deeply, and to tap workers’ social power.
“Secondly, the unions have a special connection to Labor.”
Labor opposed government refugee legislation in 2002—the first time since Howard was first elected in 1996. Howard withdrew the legislation rather than be defeated in parliament.
By 2007 public opinion had shifted. Some 61 percent thought refugees should be able to enter the country. Howard couldn’t play the race card in that year’s election—and he lost to Labor.