For the 12 years that refugee policy has been kicked into the forefront of political contest, the left has said our approach should be driven by compassion. We should open our hearts and our community to those fleeing persecution. And we should not keep those seeking safe haven interned in Australia or anywhere else. We understood that our political posturing would have little impact on boat arrivals as it was not our domestic policy but international conflict that drove people to come to Australia.
This remained our position through opposition and into government. The belief in compassion as a cornerstone has not changed – but for some of us, the view about how that can be achieved has.
This didn't start with the prime minister’s announcement last week. That announcement – of a regional resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) – was dramatic in every respect. No less for the timing. It came 12 months from the date when, in full public gaze, another boat capsized off Christmas Island. Nothing had better highlighted the political impotence of parliament on this issue: as bodies floated in the water, parliament debated policy without resolution.
Amid the acrimony of the failed debate on the Malaysia Agreement, something was missed or forgotten: many in the left had changed their mind. I was one of them. And this week, we were accused of abandoning the good fight.
Many have characterised this shift as political morality being mugged by populist political expedience. They are wrong. This is genuine ethical dilemma being mugged by practical experience.
There are around 43 million displaced people in the world including, 15.2 million refugees. Australia is clearly better placed than most of the countries that carry the heaviest burden of displaced people. Countries like Pakistan for example, have 1.7 million refugees and 22% of the population living below the poverty line.
Nobody seriously suggests that that we can take every asylum seeker who wants to come to Australia. Some do seriously suggest – including the Greens party – that we should take everyone who can afford to get here. This is not tenable for many reasons.
The first reason is that the passage to Australia has now developed into a sophisticated million-dollar product – marketed by agents in source countries, facilitated by graft and corruption in transit countries along the way and extremely flexible in adapting to new border protection measures.
Current intelligence estimates that if left unchecked, people smugglers could succeed in landing over 50,000 asylum seekers in Australia next year alone. This is nearly twice the current humanitarian program and, to put it into perspective, nearly half our net immigration intake.
The second reason we should reject this is that the left in Australia has long argued that we have an obligation to ensure that when we provide refuge to asylum seekers, we help them settle and make a new life in Australia.
This means assisting with education, English language, housing, health and employment. It costs money that has to be budgeted for – but it is money well spent. It is the reason we are one of the most successful multicultural nation on earth. If we had an uncapped refugee intake, these programs would not be affordable.
The third and more frequently stated reason is the consequence of a perilous journey. We know of over 800 people drowned in the last 12 months. As the number of boats increases, so do the deaths at sea. I do not accept that we are morally culpable for this tragedy – as some hysterical contributors have suggested. I know desperate people will go to great lengths for the chance of a better future. That does not mean that we should not do everything that is morally acceptable to reduce and dissuade those making dangerous journeys.
For me, as a member of the Labor left, the cornerstone of a progressive policy should be to maximise the number of people we can lift out of misery and persecution at the same time as we build support for regional and international cooperation to respond to this situation. This has to be the main game.
Adherence to the 1951 Refugee Convention should be assumed. The core of that convention is that no signatory shall return a refugee to the place they fled if that leads to their continued persecution. We can be proud of our record.
Australia is one of only a handful of nations that takes refugees out of camps and resettles them here. Of that group, we have the third highest intake behind the US and Canada. When I entered parliament in 2010 our annual intake was around 13,800. We have nearly doubled it in the three years since, the largest increase in our humanitarian intake in 30 years.
Finally, we cannot be selective in our compassion – those who fall within our gaze because they arrive on our shores by boat (or plane) shall be afforded our compassion but those who languish in refugee camps around the world, the orphans, the poor and disconnected – they get none of it because they are unable to afford a ticket to the back door.
Assuming we cannot give refuge to all, we should act equitably in assessing the vying groups from around the world.
The regional resettlement arrangement is about providing refugees with genuine opportunities for settlement, balanced with the need to reduce incentives to undertake dangerous sea voyages to Australia. The agreement will ensure that those transferred to Papua New Guina will be treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards.
Our capacity to give refuge, like our capacity to increase the foreign aid budget is built on continued community support. This can only be achieved by providing confidence in the integrity of the system and that the underlying humanitarian principle does not lead to perverse results.