The frenzied debate about asylum seekers shows no signs of abating, although this time around there does appear to be more people trying to inject some basic facts and balance into the debate, rather than just pure panic or unthinking emotion.

But it is still very unfortunate that the migration debate in this country continually gets derailed by such intense focus on a few thousand people, when it is a minuscule proportion of the total number of people coming to this country every year.  If you add all the people who enter Australia each year with various types of residency entitlements – both permanent and long-term temporary – you easily get over half a million.

We desperately need more attention paid to how to better plan for, engage with and settle this large number of new arrivals.  Instead we seem unable to break out of our fixation on a small number of people arriving in boats.  There are some difficult issues involved in figuring out how best our region and the globe can handle asylum seekers and refugees, although we seem to focus almost exclusively just on whether or not we should try to keep boat people out – and if so, how.

The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, has signalled a couple of times his desire to have full community discussion about the medium and long-term nature and size of our immigration intake.  Some of those who oppose migration are prone to suggesting that somehow this is a forbidden debate, and one which Australian political parties (who all tend to favour sizeable migration intakes) supposedly avoid.

But there are plenty of people, including the Immigration Minister, who would dearly like a detailed public debate on all aspects of our migration system. One would like to think that the more detailed the debate was, the more chance there would be that some of the long-standing myths about the supposedly harmful economic, social and security aspects of migration would be finally debunked, although is probably being over-optomistic. But more debate and discussion is almost always better than less.

However, on the whole it appears that most of us amongst politicians, the media and the public only get interested in engaging with migration issues when a small number of people arrive in boats.  Our inability to get more effective immigration and settlement systems, and particularly our failure to improve the cultural responsiveness of our services and institutions in an ever more diverse community, leaves us with a poorer future than we would otherwise have.