Peter Dutton is a terrible minister. Fortunately, you don’t need to demonstrate much skill to be a minister when the people who oppose you are consistently unable to maintain a campaign against you. If a minister with any other portfolio had demonstrated the complete lack of competence that Dutton has, they’d have been dropped by now.
The problem — I know, I know, I’ve said this so many times before — is that asylum seeker advocates are incapable of communicating with people who disagree with them. There is no attempt to change minds. There is no attempt to improve the discussion. There is only impotent outrage and ignorant moralising.
So when Peter Dutton claimed that the reason why you wouldn’t increase Australia’s humanitarian intake to 50,000 because refugees are unskilled and illiterate and will either steal jobs or sit on the dole, you can be sure that Dutton won’t be losing his portfolio. It ticked all the right boxes for Dutton’s target audience: old school ALP voters who think more about protecting jobs for working class white people than they do the suffering of others.
In an ordinary debate, you’d have an agreed set of facts upon which to discuss the issue. The former ALP government was pretty bad, but at least they put together an expert panel for exactly this purpose. In their report, they recommended that the humanitarian intake be increased to 20,000 immediately, and then increased further if economic conditions allow.
The purpose of this was to make regular migration pathways more attractive. People wouldn’t use irregular migration pathways if there was a functioning resettlement process in place. Because that process is broken, they opt for irregular migration. Long story short, if we’re serious about fixing the asylum seeker resettlement framework, Australia needs to increase its refugee intake from refugee camps.
The fact that the Abbott-Turnbull government hasn’t increased its intake is demonstrative of its bad faith engagement with asylum seeker policy.
But where did the 50,000 intake come from? The Greens.
Again, if the debate weren’t entirely demented, somebody would ask the Greens: ‘Wait… the expert panel recommended 20,000. Why are you recommending 50,000? And by when?’
It’s amazing what you can promise when you know you’re never going to have to deliver. It is also demonstrative of the Greens’ bad faith engagement with asylum seeker policy.
No progressive person should accept the Greens’ policy. The 50,000 includes a 10,000 cohort of ‘skilled refugees’ — a concept which is morally abhorrent. It is a fundamental error to assess a person’s resettlement claim based on their skills. Resettlement is based on need: the applicant’s and not ours.
Dutton’s comments sparked outrage from the usual megaphones and blowhards. All of them tacitly accepted Dutton’s terms of debate: if 50,000 refugees came here and stole jobs or needed the dole, that would be bad.
One response was that refugees were all very skilled and had great skills that would help Australia. This is fantasy. We know that refugees come from a wide variety of backgrounds and often have complex needs. I don’t know what good it does anybody to suggest the Ideal Refugee Hero as the person worthy of resettlement.
One other response was to point out the success of refugees in Australia’s history. Look at how successful refugees have been in Australia! Look at how good they’ve been! The problem with the argument is that their success has been possible with very low intake rates. Australia had a very expensive (but exemplary) resettlement strategy. Refugees often have complex needs, so a programme was designed in order to support integration into society. It was resource intensive, including language training. Would this programme continue in the same way if we rapidly increased intake to 50,000 from 13,000? If not, does the success of refugees in the past matter for a discussion about how refugees under a new scheme will fare?
One other response was that 50,000 refugees would somehow create new jobs for themselves. Somehow. Magic, probably. The idea was that each refugee would create demand for goods and services and that would boost the economy to make new jobs. One wonders why all the unemployed people that we have in Australia don’t just create jobs for themselves. Or why doesn’t the government just create demand by purchasing goods and dumping them into the sea so that we can create more jobs. Even if you want to argue about the voodoo economics involved, we might turn instead to the question of infrastructure. Julian Burnside used to have an argument about resettling refugees to rural communities because that would create jobs… except he forgot that rural Australia lacks the infrastructure (like mental health services and language services) needed to create these new jobs.
All three of these responses suggest that the problem with Dutton’s claims is the factual aspect suggesting that, if Dutton were correct in his evidence, his argument is sound.
The problem with Dutton’s argument is that it’s based on an idea that refugees should be beneficial to us in order for us to grant them asylum. Refugees must both be thankful to us for our charity and must pay us back. It’s the opposite of ‘ethical consumption’, buying the coffee where a portion of the profit goes to protecting the rainforest. Here we have charity that comes with economic obligations, saving the rainforest on the proviso that countries supply us with cheaper coffee.
Nobody appears to have the courage to say: ‘If every single one of the 50,000 refugees sat on welfare, that would be fine.’ And yet this is the only morally appropriate position. The questions of whether or not they’ll be on welfare, whether or not they’ll take low-skilled jobs, or whether or not they’ll become a highly educated ruling class are entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not they are refugees who should be resettled.
The only question is how many refugees Australia can integrate successfully, and we should err on the size of more rather than fewer. Can we successfully integrate 50,000 refugees per year? Would we need to change our settlement strategy so that it was cheaper per person? Or do we just accept that it will be extraordinarily expensive?
We shouldn’t accept Dutton’s framing of the discussion, and we shouldn’t pitch our responses to people who already agree that Dutton’s factually incorrect. Dutton shouldn’t be a minister, but he’ll continue to sit in the role until the protest groups get better at landing hits on Dutton’s dopey rhetoric.