Federal Politics

License article

Those seeking refuge deserve dignity and respect

The divisive scare tactics on asylum seekers must end.

HISTORICALLY, politicians know that leadership is about doing what is right, appealing to the best in people, about decency and honesty. They do not denigrate and demonise. They do not indulge in cynical, dog-whistle politics. They do not play to populism, fear or ignorance. This latter approach, sadly, has been adopted by Australia's political leaders in the debate on asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by boat.

As we begin 2013, a year of a federal election, there is an opportunity to end this unseemly chapter of political history, to inspire and truly lead the nation to an enlightened position.

Here, then, is the speech The Age would sorely love to hear, and that Australians have a right and a need to hear, from one or both prime ministerial candidates:

''My fellow Australians, we live in one of the world's most prosperous nations. Together, over many generations, we have built a society that cherishes freedom, that protects individual and collective rights, a society based on respect and dignity. We have nurtured enterprise, while seeking to support the marginalised and the vulnerable. And we have created a multicultural community that is admired and respected throughout the world.

''The strength of our nation reflects the efforts of people who have come here from many countries over many years. This is a nation proudly developed by immigrants. We must keep building, and that effort must continue to involve people who adopt this nation and who are, in turn, embraced by it. In recent years, we have missed an opportunity to properly include in our national project some of the most resourceful and resilient people. Those who are, too, among the most vulnerable and marginalised on the planet - refugees.

''There are times when we must reflect on our views in the light of evidence and compelling arguments for change. There is no dishonour in evolving one's position; indeed, it is incumbent on all of us to have the courage to always seek better results. It is time to rethink our policies. It is time for us to treat asylum seekers as a humanitarian issue, not a political one. Make no mistake, people smuggling is a pernicious crime, something we must resist. But that is a separate issue to what to do about people fleeing persecution.


''We must redouble our efforts to convince other nations in our region to join us in seeking a just outcome. We must push them to join us as signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees, of which Australia was one of the founders. Under that charter, we have an obligation to accept asylum seekers and assess their bona fides. Should they be genuine, as 90 per cent of those who arrive by boat are, we have an obligation - and a moral duty - to grant refugee status. Further, there is no law in this land that prohibits someone without a passport or other official documents from seeking asylum.

''Again, these are desperate people. They do not choose to flee their homes. Seeking asylum is a disorderly process; there is no queue for these people to join, and they are not illegal immigrants.

''They show great courage, and many have skills that can buttress our economy. Imagine what Australia would be like had we not taken in so many refugees from Europe after World War II. Consider the benefits we gained from the intake of Vietnamese refugees decades ago. Our population growth, as well as our economic growth, depends on immigration.

''It is time to put this issue into a clearer perspective. There are more than 15 million refugees in the world. Australia takes a minute proportion. By total number of asylum seekers, we rank 23, and on a per capita basis we rank 32.

''Mandatory and offshore detention is costing a billion dollars each year. We can slash that bill by processing asylum seekers in the community. This way, too, they will far sooner be contributing to the economy, using their skills and energy to produce goods and services - and pay taxes.

''This nation prides itself on the notion of a fair go. Our community is based on dignity and justice. We must truly apply these values to asylum seekers, and, in so doing, honour ourselves. This way, we will build not only the wealth of this great nation, we will build its pride and its international stature.''