Don’t be fooled by headlines proclaiming Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is increasing Australia’s refugee intake. He is instead confirming that the Abbott government’s cut in Australia’s humanitarian visa intake will be made permanent.

Turnbull, in New York to participate in a global talkfest about refugees — in particular Syrian refugees — has made much of increasing our refugee intake. Or, more accurately, committing that it wouldn’t be cut in the future. This is what he said in his media release overnight:

“[The government will] maintain our Humanitarian Program at the increased level of 18,750 places from 2018-19 onwards. This is in addition to the 12,000 places we have committed for refugees from Syria and Iraq.”

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Sounds good, right? Except all he’s said is that the government is going to keep the 18,750 level beyond 2018-19. That year is significant because when Tony Abbott agreed to accept several thousand Syrian refugees just days before his ouster last year, it was intended to be in addition to the existing 13,750 intake — but it would only be temporary. The idea was — although Abbott never explicitly said this — that since we’d done our bit in resettling 12,000 Syrians (appropriately selected to avoid Sunni Muslim men), our intake would return to its “normal” level after 2019.

So at best, all Turnbull is doing in keeping the temporary increase that Abbott announced.

Let’s go back slightly further, to 2014. That year, Abbott (backed of course by his cabinet, of which Turnbull was a part) cut our refugee intake to 13,750, from 20,000 — a cut of nearly one-third. Labor had increased our humanitarian intake when it was in government from 13,750 to 20,000 — in line with the argument of the Houston-Aristotle-L’Estrange report that we should reduce the incentives for asylum seekers to come by boat and increase the incentives for refugees to come here through formal resettlement processes.

Labor’s decision would have begun fixing a long-term blot on our humanitarian record — even though we’ve taken in more refugees per head than nearly any other Western country, it was laughable that a country as large and as rich as Australia should take in less than a suburban footy ground each year in refugees.

Abbott and then-immigration minister Scott Morrison’s decision to cut the intake back to 13,750 was disgraceful and grubby — and totally unnecessary given the success of their boat turnback policy. It was an act of wanton callousness directed at punishing the very people they purported to cherish — refugees prepared to come to Australia via formal processes rather than trying to come here by boat.

Turnbull’s “decision” doesn’t even reverse this shameful moment for Australia. The level Turnbull is parading as “[playing] a leading role in global efforts to assist refugees” leaves the level below 20,000. If he were serious, this would be a first step toward a long-term increase in resettlement — growing toward 25,000 at least. As it is, it’s the political equivalent of offering a discount on an artificially inflated price — if the government were a corporation and tried that sort of stuff, it’d be off to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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