With polls showing the election race closer than expected, the Liberals are again reaching for anti-refugee xenophobia to grab votes.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comments that more refugees would just take Australian jobs or “languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare” were disgraceful and divisive.
His claim that “They won't be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,” was simply offensive to the many refugees who arrive here with a high level of education, or who work hard and make huge contributions to the community.
There are many examples, from Sudanese refugee and former child soldier, Deng Thiak Adut, now a lawyer in Western Sydney, Afghan refugee Homa Forotan, now a doctor in a Brisbane hospital or Dr Al Muderis, an Iraqi refugee and world-leading orthopaedic surgeon.
The Liberal Party has consistently spread fear about refugees in an effort to win votes. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s talk about the need for “strong borders” presents refugees as a threat that must be kept out. Before the last election in 2013, Liberal candidate Fiona Scott famously claimed refugees were to blame for hospital queues and overcrowded traffic on the M4.
But we can’t just dismiss such comments as ridiculous. They are designed to tap into real fears and turn refugees into a scapegoat for problems like unemployment and the running down of public services. There are many areas in Australia where jobs are a major issue. Townsville has an unemployment rate of 12.4 per cent, and youth unemployment is as high as 17.6 per cent in some suburbs of Adelaide and 15.7 per cent in south-west Sydney.
There will be 39,000 jobs lost in manufacturing as Holden and Toyota shut up shop. Another 1,100 jobs are under threat at the Whyalla steelworks in South Australia. Research on the closure of Mitsubishi’s plant by Professor Andrew Beer from the University of South Australia suggests just one in three of those sacked will find full-time work again.
Australia has only ever had tiny numbers of refugees arrive here. The highest ever number to arrive by boat in one year, in 2013, was equivalent to just 0.1 per cent of Australia’s population.
Blaming refugees helps governments hide their own failure on jobs. Malcolm Turnbull and Scott’s Morrison’s plan for “jobs and growth” in the budget turned out to just be a plan for cuts to corporate tax. All they could offer to assist the unemployed was $4 an hour “internships” working in supermarkets and cafes.
Nor are refugees to blame for the state of hospital funding or the failure to spend on infrastructure like public transport and roads. Infrastructure experts have been warning for years that infrastructure spending was not keeping up with population growth in our largest cities. Yet governments have failed to act.
Australia is a wealthy country. There is more than enough money to look after pensioners, the unemployed and the sick as well as take our share of the desperate people fleeing wars and ethnic persecution. More than enough, that is, if the government was not handing out tax cuts to millionaires and high income earners, and if it got serious about tackling tax avoidance by multinational companies.
Labor is right to say Dutton's comments are insulting to millions of migrants. But Bill Shorten supports the Liberals’ “border protection” measures against refugees, including offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.
The major parties’ anti-refugee xenophobia can be reversed. Under the Howard government the refugee rights campaign worked determinedly to combat the myths about refugees. There was a real turnaround in public opinion between 2001 and 2004, with Newspoll showing that the number of people who agreed some or all refugee boats should be allowed to land increased from 47 per to 61 per cent. The government was eventually forced to bring all the refugees who remained on Nauru to Australia.
Over the last year the beginnings of such a shift have again been visible, in the support for the “Let Them Stay” campaign and for refugees from Syria. Shifting public opinion again can turn back the xenophobia and break the bipartisan deadlock around refugees.
James Supple is an activist with the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, which has been campaigning for the rights of refugees since 1999.