Carmen’s fans

Hi. I’m pleased to announce that Carmen Lawrence will write a fortnightly column for Webdiary next year.

She’ll join John Wojdylo and Harry Heidelberg as regular columnists. Each will be linked from the right-hand column of Webdiary, and their columns will be archived. I’ll let you know on the main Webdiary page when I publish a column.

After her resignation, I asked Carmen for a piece on public reaction.


What’s really going on

by Carmen Lawrence

My resignation from the frontbench of the Federal Labor Party a couple of weeks ago released a wave of pent up anger and anguish from many Labor members and supporters. Paradoxically, perhaps, many of them also found renewed hope that the ALP could again represent their vision of Australia, “that our once great Labor Party can see its way clear to return to its grassroots and.move forward to create a country that extends a hand to the oppressed people of this world”; that it represented “a chance for Labor to be a real Opposition.”

A common sentiment was that it gave people heart. As a 72-year-old woman from Launceston told me, that as a life-long Labor voter, she had “never been so disillusioned as at these times and at the time of the last election. Your actions and words have given me new hope.”

This response, one of approximately 6000 faxes, e-mails, phone calls and letters, is typical:

“You are saying exactly what many ordinary members of the party have been saying for a long time now. It is absolutely clear that the party has got itself into the car salesman mode. You no doubt know what I mean, it’s about closing the deal ‘What do I have to say to get you to vote for me?'”

Another long-time Labor supporter complained that our “policies are too close to Howard’s and (we are) falling into the trap that Howard has set – ie Howard dictates the agenda and issues. This way Labor will be seen to play catch up and has no policies and direction of its own.”

Norm from Dapto put it even more bluntly:

“Labor’s agreeing with Howard on so many things is a disaster. Apart from the human values involved, no opposition worth its salt should be agreeing so much. They are trying to play on Howard’s pitch by his rules and he has the game sewn up.”

Others included papers and detailed analyses of the current state of the Party and how it has influenced the development of the refugee policy. For example, a former natural resource manager and planner wrote:

“I learnt early that there were three basic steps in planning – philosophy, principle, practice. Labor has fallen into the common trap of deciding out of logical order a practice it proposed to implement to achieve its goal before developing a ‘policy’ inevitably devoid of philosophy and principle. In following this course it has developed a strategy, not a policy. A recognised planner/author called this process ‘solutioneering’.”

Many argued strongly that the Labor Party needed to be clearer about its values and to stick to them, instead of compromising every time.

As one long term member of the ALP put it:

“The Labor Party, in fact any political party, does have a responsibility far beyond reflecting populist sentiment. Political activism is about building, and implementing a vision. In the past, the party has had a resilient and open approach that enabled political vision to be built on the input of people concerned over equality, redistribution of resources, open debate and open decision making processes. Now, it appears, the first goal is to attain power, and political goals are built according to how they facilitate the achievement of that goal. This necessarily limits debate and visioning to those directly involved in strategy, excluding the majority from the thinking process, and necessarily alienating them from the final positions established, and alienating the political leaders from the passions and concerns of the people in the party.”

Others urged the Party to speak clearly for the oppressed and “those without a voice” – including the refugees who ask for our help. A good number urged me – and others with similar views – not to stop talking because they are “afraid for the country we have become”.

Some drew attention to the deficiencies in the modern political system and the reasons why many people felt so disenfranchised; that politicians generally are driven by “a concern for vote buying by deception rather than defining and advancing workable social programs”.

Many responded to what they regarded as the policy failures over the treatment of asylum seekers, others to the broader issues of the current state and direction of the ALP. A lot agonised over the damage that the Howard Government is inflecting on our society and on our place in the world. The extract below it typical.

“I’m just writing you to let you know that you speak for many, many people, who have until now felt totally disenfranchised. Like me, many of my friends and relatives would never vote for the Right, but have been loathe to support the Labor Party while it maintains a refugee policy which seems to be based on 19th-century xenophobia and 21st-century poll-ophobia.”

Despite the claims that these sentiments are confined to the inner city areas of Sydney and Melbourne, messages of encouragement came from all around the country from the cities and the bush, from men and women, from young and old. Some of those who wrote were professionals accustomed to expressing their views; others clearly struggled to express accurately why they were so worried, often with stunning effect.

Union officials and ALP Branch and Electorate Council officers joined former Labor Ministers, their families and staffers in calling for a change of direction. The moderate and conciliatory tones of ministers, priests and nuns who wrote in support of more compassionate and humane policies arrived simultaneously with seditious e-mails from students burning up virtual space with their indignation that we could even begin to contemplate engaging in a bloodbath in Iraq.

Included in list of those who made contact were former immigration department and ACM employees and a number of professionals who had worked at Woomera and Curtin. One said he saw detainees in Woomera “harassed and abused and their personalities crushed”. He had personally observed many cases of mistreatment, self-harm and suicide and reminded me that witnessing such abuse can also cause psychological damage to many of those who have worked in these dehumanising places.

A gentleman from Cooma expressed the view that:

“The way we are currently treating asylum seekers is a disgrace, as attested to in the human rights report released today and in previous UN criticism. We are destroying our image in the world as ‘fair minded’. We are also creating future potential enemies.”

On the same issue, a former Labor staffer observed that “what I don’t think has been understood by the ALP is how it has let down, not only its rank and file members, but other Australians”. She said she had been struck by “the feeling of uneasiness and despair in the wider Australian community” and the fact that many people “felt dispossessed, or outraged” since the Tampa incident.

In longhand, a man from Tamworth wrote that:

“I was a dyed in the wool believer that they were ‘queue jumpers’, but all can’t be, because as I thought it through, if our town was suddenly attacked, burnt, ravaged etc like some of those place, I would panic and try to get my family to safety or anywhere out of the line of fire.”

Some lamented the “lost opportunities” which came with the community euphoria and good will generated by the Olympic Games and the Reconciliation marches. As one put it, “opportunities lost because of a Prime Minister who not only has no capacity for imagination but is actively destructive of our ‘common wealth”.

“His only interest is the maintenance of his own power. He has no understanding of our history.”

Two women friends from a block of flats in Clifton Hill in Victoria wrote jointly to say:

“Recent years have displayed the most profoundly inhuman, selfish, stupid and utterly destructive policies in living memory, whether it be concerning asylum seekers, public education, public health and housing, Aboriginal affairs or the horrifying warmongering over Iraq. We believe Australia stands at the most critically dangerous point in its history.”

Some wept for the damage being done to our society. A ‘first generation immigrant’ told me that she was “very disturbed at what is happening to our Muslim citizens – I am not a Muslim, but because of my brown skin, I know what it is like to be labelled as ‘other’.” In her impassioned pleas for the adopted country she loves, she expressed fear that Australia “is being led by unenlightened men down a very dark road which seems to be only creating greater factionalism and discord”.

Opposition to a possible attack on Iraq was frequently mentioned, stirring people to passionate objection. A couple from Evans Head in NSW argued that “such a war would be as futile and ineffectual as the Vietnam war and would cause even greater numbers of innocent civilian casualties”. Many were alarmed that Labor had not distanced itself sufficiently from a possible U.S. pre-emptive strike and many wrote disparagingly of the “Deputy Sheriff” approach of the Howard government.

While some sections of the media took the opportunity to give me a wallop over my resignation, only a handful of their fellow citizens communicated similarly hostile reactions to me. Most of those who made contact were more interested in solving our nation’s problems and looking hopefully for signs that their political representatives understood the perilous state of politics in this country.

As one correspondent begged us to understand:

“Australia is in a unique position to capitalise on its many strengths, but don’t let its myopia and insecurity stop it from unleashing its potential as a truly great, compassionate, peace-loving nation.”

To which I can only say, “hear, hear.”

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