Paul Bongiorno
Abbott’s borderline success on Syria refugees

In the end, Tony Abbott got there. Almost. The tragic image of the three-year-old drowned Syrian refugee set off a worldwide tsunami of outrage and grief. That wave swamped not only the prime minister but Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as well. It is a sad indictment of the way in which federal politics is plied in this country.

Who would have imagined that the prime minister, whose proudest boast is stopping the boats, would announce the immediate opening up of Australia to 12,000 refugees from Syria? They won’t be arriving by boat, of course; they’ll fly in after being vetted. But like most of those holed up in Manus or on Nauru, they are displaced and fleeing ruin and persecution. His first instinct was to demur. But so, too, was Bill Shorten’s.

In Abbott’s case old habits die hard. Like the old Mortein advertisement: “When you’re on a good thing, stick to it.” Ever since John Howard sniffed there were votes in making a huge deal of the more than 300 refugee boats to breach our shore in 2001, the debate over asylum seekers has been ugly, divisive and demeaning. But it has been politically potent.

The losers in this unseemly political brawl have mostly been the Labor Party. So like the prime minister, Shorten wasn’t about to appear weak on border protection. That in itself is symptomatic of the low-rent equating of desperate people seeking our protection with an invading military force. The Labor leader stuck as closely as he could to the Abbott mantra the day after the pictures of the little boy flashed around the world: “I believe in defeating the people smugglers and stopping the drowning.” There is no doubt that even in the case of the Turkish beach tragedy, unconscionable people smugglers had put their clients’ safety at great risk. The dinghies with their overloaded cargoes of human misery should never have tried to make that crossing in the conditions. But that misses the bigger point.

These were men, women and children fleeing the genocidal fury of a tyrannical Syrian president. Bashar al-Assad had already bombed to rubble his own cities and poison-gassed their inhabitants. The civilian death toll is more than quarter of a million people. The embattled dictator is responsible for most of them, making the Daesh “death cult” second tier accomplices in the carnage.

Here it gets murky. Abbott also announced Australian fighter jets would now extend their bombing raids into Syria. But he stressed the target would always be the “Daesh death cult” not Assad. He left open the option of reviewing this strategy even to the extent of “boots on the ground” depending, of course, on consultation with allies. Former top Australian brass such as one-time Australian Defence Force chief General Peter Gration and chief of army Peter Leahy are warning against this mission creep. Some on the Liberal backbench wish their leader would be more earnest seeking a political solution to the conflict to end the bloodshed. Is it beyond the wit of the Australian government to play a significant role brokering for peace? Maybe the penny is dropping. The need for a political solution was discussed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and US Secretary of State John Kerry after the Australian announcement. The Greens are not alone in saying the path we are pursuing is making a bad situation worse.

The thousands flooding into Europe looked to be very ordinary people on our television screens. These were families seeking shelter and a better life for themselves, free from the constant threat of disruption and death. No wonder that going all the way back to the Howard era our federal governments try to keep these wretched images out of public view.

Federally, the Greens were the first political party to put a number on how many Syrian refugees Australia should be prepared to take. Richard Di Natale called for an emergency intake of 20,000. That was last Saturday. Tony Abbott was still saying that stopping the boats had allowed us to take 4400 Syrian and Iraqi refugees last year, and that there could be more but it would be within the current intake of 13,750. That night Australia’s most popular political leader, the Liberal premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, released a statement that threw up in lights how pathetic the Liberal and Labor response in Canberra had been. Baird picked up the sentiment of the nation and gave it poignant voice.

“We can’t see the images we have seen and feel the things we have felt,” he wrote on Facebook, “and then go back to business as usual.” He praised his federal colleagues for flagging an increase in our humanitarian intake over coming years. “But I believe we should do even more. And we should do it now.”

He continued: “Stopping the boats can’t be where this ends. It is surely where humanitarianism begins.” His pleas were echoed by federal Liberal backbenchers Craig Laundy and Russell Broadbent. Another, Ewen Jones, thought 30,000 to 50,000 more places should be offered.

The next day, Shorten agreed more should be done now but did not nominate a number. He slipped up by referring to the terrible images of “the little girl” only to correct himself later in the doorstop. But it seemed symptomatic of a confused understanding of where public opinion was going. His office says that behind the scenes Labor was consulting with community groups and agencies. Many on social media were highly critical of their timidity. But the vacuum left by Abbott was finally filled by Labor the next day, with a call for an additional 10,000 humanitarian places for Syrian refugees and an extra $100 million to help the United Nations High Commission for Refugees cope with the four million in camps abutting Syria.

In an effort to be seen to be doing something, Abbott despatched Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Europe to find out firsthand what the UN needed. Taxpayers could have been spared the airfare to find out what was needed was more countries such as Australia taking more refugees. The agency had already documented that it was running out of funds for the provision of services to the burgeoning refugee camps. By midweek Abbott went higher than Labor but fell short of the Greens with an emergency intake of 12,000. He fell well short of the $100 million in aid, however, only putting an extra $40 million on the table.

But this issue can never shake its racist and xenophobic undertones. Abbott is to be commended for taking no notice of those in his party room on the extreme right. Liberal senator Cory Bernardi sought to minimise the plight of the father whose family had been drowned. “They were in no danger in Turkey,” Bernardi told the senate. He only wanted to go to Europe for dental care. As if proper healthcare isn’t a human necessity. As if being able to legally work to provide for your family isn’t a valid aspiration. Like thousands of others he had refuge there, sure, but with no work rights or settlement rights. Many who fled the onslaught in the past four years are giving up hope of ever being able to safely return home.

Bernardi’s colleague, the Liberal National member for Dawson, based in Mackay, Queensland, George Christensen, went on Twitter to play very ugly politics: “Liberal National Plan, Job-creating free trade giving Aussies jobs first. Labor Plan, 20,000 plus refugees a year who can take Aussie jobs.”

Government leaders in the days leading up to the announcement were sending a strong message that preference would be given to persecuted religious minorities. Some on the Liberal right chimed in, emphasising that the most persecuted are Christians. This sent alarm bells ringing in the Muslim community. The Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, told Guardian Australia that it reinforces the message that Muslims “are always going to be vilified in the Australian community”.

Abbott went some of the way to alleviate these concerns. He dropped reference to “religious” minorities when he stressed refuge would be given to women, children and families. When pushed about minorities, he was careful to accurately include Muslims: “There are Muslim minorities, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds, there are non-Muslim minorities, Christians, various sorts, Jews, Yazidis, Armenians.”

No mention was made of single men or why they will not be included. Christensen filled in those blanks on Twitter, raising the old chestnut that “terrorists” are embedding in the refugee camps. Demonising refugees has worked a treat in the past; we can only hope the thousands who attended candlelight vigils in capital cities around the nation put paid to that as a useful political tactic.

There’s no doubt our major party political leaders followed the community in turning on its head 14 years of particularly mean-spirited refugee policy masquerading as compassion. But while this sea change was happening another was brewing in the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party. I am told the numbers are there for a change of leader. Waiting for Canning is not an option because it would leave Abbott in place until October, when the parliament resumes after this fortnight. So there is one more sitting week. This could be wishful thinking on the part of an increasingly worried cohort of marginal seat holders. Or it could be on. No one is confirming anything.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Borderline success".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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