It’s hard to know which new depths — incoherence, inaccuracy or outright bigotry — Immigration Minister Peter Dutton plumbed overnight when he claimed refugees were illiterate in both their own languages and in English and would both take jobs from Australians and “languish in unemployment queues”.

What had been a relatively positive Turnbull campaign in week one turned, yesterday, into an all-out assault on Labor’s perceived vulnerability on asylum seekers, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull going the full Abbott (give or take a dozen flags) by using the paramilitary agency Australian Border Force as a backdrop to say Labor couldn’t be trusted on border security.

Suitably encouraged, the eloquent Dutton went on a far-right pay-TV program to go further and sink the boot not merely into Labor but all refugees, even ones who arrive here at the invitation of the government via the purported queue. Can’t read, can’t count — but can somehow take the jobs of Australians (as many have observed over the years, if you’re so bad at your job someone who can’t even speak your language can do it better than you, you might want to think about your skill set).

Inevitably, that meant the media cycle would be dominated by the topic of refugees, exactly as the Coalition likes it, and the outrage generated by Dutton’s remarks merely serves that purpose. So, key performance indicator achieved. The only problem is if you have a Prime Minister who has explicitly differentiated himself from the predecessor he dislodged by promising a different, more intelligent approach to politics, which places him in a difficult position when his ministers so enthusiastically embrace the dumb bigotry that characterised that predecessor.

This created the unfortunate image this morning of the normally loquacious, nay voluble, Malcolm Turnbull refusing to take questions from national media at a Cairns campaign event, insisting he would speak to local journalists only. It wasn’t a good look, but a little prime ministerial dignity is a small price to pay for going hard on asylum seekers.

Funnily enough, though, the thing about refugees is that they’re exactly the kind of people that Turnbull’s innovative, agile Australia apparently wants. It’s certainly true that, regardless of the economic benefits of a higher population that all migrants, including refugees, bring — especially younger refugees — there’s a fiscal impact in settling them.

Refugees — because they’ve been forced to move rather than voluntarily decided to migrate; because they usually can’t access their assets in their home country; because they haven’t developed skills with the goal of being employable in a different culture; because they often suffer from mental health problems created by the circumstances that forced them to flee — require assistance when they resettle. They require assistance to learn English, to acquire skills, to adjust to living in a different culture and economy, to educate their children (children make up a higher proportion of refugees than other migrant categories).

Once they acquire jobs, it’s possible it may be 20 years before they pay enough income tax to bring the taxpayer out ahead in net terms. However, there’s little evidence from Europe that large numbers of refugees depress wages. Reported effects of low-skilled migrants on wages, The Economist found, were slight.

And refugees, according to a 2011 report, have lower workforce participation levels than Australian-born citizens (so, actually, they don’t compete for jobs as much as the rest of us do), but that improves over time and refugees who complete their education in Australia actually have higher workforce participation rates than Australian-born people — as do the children of refugees when they reach working age. And refugees highly value education; they and their children have much higher rates of tertiary education than Australian-born people.

Refugees also tend to be more entrepreneurial than the rest of us. Census data has shown higher proportions of owner/managers among refugee communities than Australian-born citizens — usually among longer-established communities, but also among more recent arrivals like the Somali community. This is despite refugees normally being unable to bring capital with them to start up businesses — although the second generation of refugee families seem to fall back to domestic levels of entrepreneurship, compared to their more business-minded parents.

And the traditional pattern of refugees settling in major cities near educational and health services and their own communities (and, not coincidentally, where’s the most economic opportunities) has also been breaking down (there’s a detailed discussion here), with more refugees moving to regional areas, often to take on work for which agricultural and other regional employers have trouble finding labour.

More educated than Australian-born citizens, more entrepreneurial, more willing to move around the country to pursue economic opportunities — refugees and their families sound like ideal members of Turnbull’s innovative Australia. Today, though, they’re ideal whipping boys for an election campaign that has suddenly turned into a very nasty place, under a Prime Minister who promised so much more.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey