Foley’s ‘white flight’ not new for the ALP

Investigating the racist history of the Labor Party.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the Australian state apparatus is an illegitimate colonial project. All political parties that operate on the terrain of the state contribute to this project. This always was and always be Aboriginal land.

Last month, New South Wales Labor opposition leader Luke Foley told The Daily Telegraph that Sydney’s western suburbs were experiencing “white flight”, due to the increasingly multicultural makeup of the area. Members of the ALP on all levels, from lofty Federal MPs to lowly student politicians, publicly criticised Foley’s comment, labelling it as divisive and antithetical to Labor values. But Foley’s words were not antithetical to Labor values. The difference between Foley’s comment and Labor’s official rhetoric is in the delivery–Foley’s delivery was vulgar, rather than soft.

As a settler colony, the modern state of Australia was founded on racism, promoting itself as a new white utopia. It offered its citizens endless opportunity by perpetuating the myth of terra nullius. In the 1890s, white settlers born in Australia became the majority of the population: political parties formed, and a formalised labour movement was born.

Foley’s words were not antithetical to Labor values. The difference … is in the delivery.

In 1900, The Toscin, newspaper of a radical labour movement, declared that non-white immigrants were a plague that  “eats into and destroys the body politic”.

The White Australia policy, largely designed and promoted by Labor, both legitimised and naturalised white settler-colonialism, through projecting the title of ‘intruder’ onto outsiders, whilst white settlers dispossessed Indigenous people.

Australia’s immigration policy was even severe for the most vulnerable–refugees fleeing persecution. During the Holocaust era the Australian government introduced a quota system and various other measures to limit the migration of Jewish refugees and survivors. Jews, who constituted only a tiny minority before 1933, continued to constitute less than 0.5% of the population.  Bipartisan support gave the racist policy a veneer of credibility.

Racism was also an internal issue within the union movement. Driven by the ALP, unions pitted workers against each other, to create a perverse, unhelpful division: white labour vs. non-white labour. The unions argued that non-white workers pushed down wages and conditions. Aboriginal workers were banned from being members of their relevant unions, and Asian and Melanesian workers prevented from unionising.

Whilst there has been some form of progress over time, mostly via the provision of rights, racism remains a key feature of the ALP today.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations is perhaps one of the landmark political moments of our generation. Rudd and Jenny Macklin, the Indigenous Affairs Minister in the the former’s government, were key architects of the Northern Territory Intervention, which led to a threefold increase in the forced removal of Indigenous children. By 2013, the amount of Indigenous children in ‘out of home care’ had risen from 265 to 623. Moreover, parliamentary Labor voted to accept Howard’s Northern Territory Response Act in 2007, which effectively classed Indigenous Australians as second-class citizens, subjecting them to income management policies, increased surveillance, and invasive policing, which had not been seen since the Protection era.

The ALP was elected in 2007, on a platform of repealing the Howard government’s cruel refugee policies. By 2012, they had reopened the camps. Today Labor remains steadfastly committed to stopping those detained on Manus Island and Nauru from reaching Australian shores. Who could be surprised? This was the party that introduced mandatory detention in the first place.

Whilst the labour movement has abandoned white settler nativism for a more multicultural nationalism, the union movement remains racist.

Even those in the ‘left’ of the Party, who ideologically oppose current policy, support Labor regardless. On the ABC’s Q&A, Ged Kearney refused to say whether detainees should be brought to Australia. A day before,the Industrial Left at the Victorian State Labor Conference voted with the Right to avoid discussing refugee policy.

Whilst the labour movement has abandoned white settler nativism for a more multicultural nationalism, the union movement remains protectionist in its aims and racist in its outlook. Rhetoric like ‘Aussie jobs for Aussie workers’ continues the historical pattern of pitting local and foreign workers against one another.

Comments like Foley’s and advertisements like Labor’s controversial ‘Australians First’ ad, which only featured white Australians, are rebuked by those in and peripheral to the ALP because they crudely expose the underpinnings of the Labor Party.

Those who genuinely seek to make meaningful change would be better off leaving the ALP and working outside the confines of electoral politics–building communities, rather than building the Party. Ultimately, the only thing that changes from within the Labor Party is oneself.