Comment: This style of debate on refugees doesn't help Australia

The immigration minister. Source: AAP

This election campaign seems to be getting nastier by the day. Productive and respectful discussion on a range of topics would be better for all voters.

The majority of Australian voters are not well served by the current level of political debate over the migration program and Australia’s refugee intake.

Why is it that so much of the discussion appears aimed to divide and belittle?

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comments that illiterate refugees would take jobs from Australians are inflammatory and offensive to many migrants and refugees who have made their home in Australia. They are also offensive to many Australians born here. It is rude, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that it has been said with the intention of provoking outrage and division.


Many average voters may presume he is telling the truth. Are refugees mostly unemployed and unengaged Australians who sponge off Australia taking unfair advantage of the Medicare system? The answer is, of course, no. But how can voters make sense of what they are hearing?

This is what Mr Dutton said on Sky TV to a question about a Greens' policy to increase the immigration and humanitarian intake, a move he does not support.

"These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.

"For many of them (refugees) that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it so there would be huge cost and there's no sense in sugar-coating that, that's the scenario."

But most of the media provides no detailed analysis of what is being discussed. Few outlets are at all interested in balanced coverage of this issue. They bay for blood, hoping to see division and angst in the ranks of politicians as they stumble to deal with the fall-out.

For multicultural Australia, this attack ends up cutting at the very fabric of the bipartisan acceptance of Australian’s immigration program.

Australia benefits from the refugee intake and the wider immigration programme. Labelling those who have recently arrived in such a negative way is counter-productive, unfair and misleading.

Mr Dutton’s comments prompted the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia to ask all political parties to engage in a respectful, informed and reasonable debate on refugee issues to ensure the discourse does not marginalise this "vulnerable group".

Australia’s humanitarian intake is currently rising from 13,000 to 18,000 a year. Australia is also committed to taking in 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. Only a few have arrived.

The annual report of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said that in 2014-15 13,756 humanitarian (refugee) visas were granted. This is only a fraction of the overall migration programme.

The report stated:

"Economic migration, which includes skilled migrants or people with significant funds to invest in Australia, accounted for 67.6 % of the programme."

In essence, the refugee intake is a small part of the 190,000 offered.

The Labor policy is to increase the annual humanitarian refugee intake to 27,000, by 2025.

The Greens policy that Peter Dutton was referring to is to increase the humanitarian or refugee intake (40,000) and a skilled intake of 10,000 places.

I am sure many Australians agree that we need a measured and fair debate about this.

There will be many opinions. All opinions can be discussed and analysed but it does not have to be a shouting match.

Let’s cut the hyperbole, exaggeration and offensive comments.

Let’s value the migrants and refugees we have here and recognise the contribution they have made to Australia.

Let’s examine what we want for our future intake and let’s not scapegoat these vulnerable people in an attempt to grab votes or sell newspapers.


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