Another day, another Abbott government stuff-up. But this one’s different. It’s in an area that the Coalition owns, completely and utterly, the area where Labor is most vulnerable, the area where Labor is terrified of allowing daylight between itself and the government.

But the refugee issue has abruptly turned 180 degrees and suddenly, bizarrely, yesterday Labor was way out in front of the government, 10,000 people ahead, to be precise, as Bill Shorten watched Abbott’s timid response to the sudden change in sentiment in the community, on his own backbench and among Liberal premiers about the need to help Syrians, and decided to seize the opportunity.

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That Labor felt confident enough to call for an extra 10,000 refugee places reflects how badly the government has handled the shift. And so quickly is sentiment shifting that less than 24 hours later, Labor’s proposal is now looking unambitious. Liberal National backbencher Ewen Jones has proposed 30,000-50,000; Liberal elder Jeff Kennett says 50,000 (and that we shouldn’t be bombing Syria).

If Abbott had moved more quickly, he could have used the issue both to acknowledge the change in sentiment and to offer a narrative linked to stopping the boats. He tried to do that on the weekend, saying that stopping the boats gave the government more capacity to respond to the crisis (which it does), but then flubbed it by insisting there’d be no increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake. That is, Syrian refugees would simply displace other, deserving refugees who would not be resettled in Australia.

Given Abbott and then-immigration minister Scott Morrison had actually slashed Australia’s humanitarian visa program by around a third when they entered government, back to the miserable 13,750 level Labor had lifted it from, Abbott’s insistence on Sunday that Australia was “a good international citizen” looked particularly risible. Nor did Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop help when she idly speculated about establishing safe zones within Syria, an unlikely achievement given the monstrous Assad government can’t even control all of its own capital.

Abbott has gotten used to seeing Syria purely in terms of what it could provide him for his relentless hyping of national security. The farce of the government engineering an American request to extend Royal Australian Air Force bombing into Syria and then pretending to give it serious consideration before agreeing to it has been undertaken in the hope of burnishing Abbott’s national security credentials and wedging Labor. With Shorten falling into line on bombing, the wedge looks to have failed, but the government’s political motivations were on display when Bishop responded to Tanya Plibersek’s call for more humanitarian aid to Syrians by describing it as a “terrorists’ picnic”, which presumably makes her half-baked notion of safe zones “terrorists’ sanctuaries”.

Stuck in a mindset that viewed Syria as simply a question of when we could start dropping bombs (never mind that airstrikes will be ineffectual except for causing civilian casualties, will mean fewer airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and will mean Assad’s air force can slaughter more of his remaining population), Abbott was too late to realise that the images from Europe, and the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body, had reconfigured Syria from a narrative about national security to one about compassion. And compassion is something alien to Abbott’s combative instincts; even this morning, his spear-carrier Andrew Nikolic was sent out to criticise unnamed colleagues — presumably Jones, Craig Laundy and Russell Broadbent — for trying to “out-compassion” each other.

Instead, to create the illusion of movement, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was dispatched on Sunday to Geneva (inexplicably — do they not have phones in Switzerland?) to talk with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, normally a body derided by the government for its criticisms of Australian policy.

We’ve yet to see where the government ends up on the substantive issue of how many Syrians we help. Politically, it’s another mess for a government permanently hobbled by its leader’s flaws.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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