Former Secretary to the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, John Menadue, is appalled by the prevalent attitudes towards asylum seekers in Australia.
He says Julia Gillard is competing with Tony Abbott to show how tough she can be, when really both are playing with the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. In a recent talk at the St James Ethics Centre Menadue said “If Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser had appealed to our darker angels we would never have taken large numbers of Jewish and Indochinese refugees.”
But, I ask him, isn’t the debate today really about Islam? Why else would we concern ourselves with the small number of boat arrivals, predominantly refugees from the Middle East, and be less concerned about the larger number of asylum seekers who arrive by air, many of which come from China?
Menadue, a director of the Centre for Policy Development, says our attitude on the issue seems to be a race to the bottom — and we are paying for it. The Nauru solution, for example, cost a billion dollars and deflected only 46 asylum seekers to other countries.
Although refugees may need help in the early years of settlement, they pay back this initial generosity through hard work and commitment to their new homeland. Listening to talkback radio in the UK recently I heard business owners bemoan the prospect of stricter controls on the arrivals of workers from Eastern Europe. “They work harder than local people,” seemed to be the prevalent attitude.
So why has the issue of asylum seekers become so divisive in Australian society and what can be done to appeal to our better angels?