Australia's immigration debate is running hot, even hotter than usual. Amid the sound and fury, some pretty important questions have been neglected or answers remain unclear.
In the interests of shedding light rather than heat, here are some answers on four of the hottest.
The newest topic of furious claim and counterclaim is the situation of white farmers in South Africa. A political boutique issue, you might think, but it's quickly become the subject of an instant and passionate ideological and political clash, a clash that became physical on Perth's streets on Friday afternoon as groups of demonstrators and counter-demonstrators had to be separated by the police.
There is plenty of evidence that some of the white farmers of South Africa suffer persistent violent attacks, theft, harassment. Political agitation means this is unlikely to stop any time soon. It could well get worse as a political movement to "take back" farmland threatens to dispossess them. The report this week, for instance, by the ABC's Africa correspondent, Sally Sara, gave a good, balanced picture.
Some on Australia's political right demand they be allowed to migrate to Australia as refugees fleeing racial persecution. A chorus of conservative voices has gone up, insisting the federal government give them a special refugee category with their own quota, as it did when it created a one-off program for 12,000 Syrian refugees.
Some on the political left have reacted angrily, saying that well-off, white farmers from South Africa should not be allowed to displace desperate people who've fled other persecutions. Australia should instead take more Syrians or Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, they argue.
The minister who actually makes the decision, Peter Dutton, who retains immigration as part of his vast, new portfolio of Home Affairs, said last month that the white South African farmers deserved "special consideration".
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, this week said they should join Australia's immigration queue rather than get any special treatment. Malcolm Turnbull has said there will not be a special category created for the South Africans; they can apply through the humanitarian program.
In the meantime, the right-wing demonstrators who converged outside Julie Bishop's Perth office on Friday produced a petition calling on the government to give 80 per cent of Australia's humanitarian visas to the white South African farmers. Left-wing demonstrators blocked their progress under banners reading "fight racism".
So the question you might reasonably ask is this - what's the government actually going to do about it? The response is already under way. The South Africans farmers have advocates in Australia - their relatives and emigre community groups - who are entitled to make submissions to the Department of Home Affairs drawing attention to their situation.
This has already happened. The department is now considering whether these cases meet the criteria to be granted humanitarian visas. If they do, they'll be given visas and if they don't, they won't. They don't need a special category - their numbers of are tiny. The potential numbers are not in the thousands or the hundreds but probably only in the dozens, the department expects. It's a big thing to give up your land and your assets and leave your country.
The white South African farmers certainly won't need 80 per cent of the places in the humanitarian program - Australia's quota this financial year is for 16,250 humanitarian visas. Giving them 80 per cent would equate to 13,000 visas. On the department's estimate, that would be more than 12,900 more than they could possibly need.
And who are the racists here? The characters saying that white people should take priority, or those demanding that they should be excluded in favour of others?
A reasonable person would conclude that both of these views are racist. Australian immigration, Australian officialdom generally, should be colour-blind. The centre must hold against the fringes right and left or Australia will end up being yet another country whose citizens flee in desperation, a source of refugees rather than a haven.
In a world awash in more refugees than at any time since World War Two, there will never be enough havens. There are about 65 million displaced people, about 1 per cent of humanity. This is the highest percentage since the United Nations started counting in 1951. Australia could take more; under a Labor government it is pledged to.
But it's important to know that Australia has the bandwidth to accept persecuted white farmers from South Africa as well as Syrians fleeing a shockingly brutal civil war, aggravated by a terrorist "caliphate".
How many refugees has Australia actually taken from the war zone, the second question? It's well known that Australia under Tony Abbott created a special one-off refugee category for 12,000 people escaping the Syrian violence. Very few realise that Australia actually has taken many more.
In the two years to June 30, 2017, Australia granted 22,000 humanitarian visas to people fleeing the Syrian war and the murderous cult Daesh, which likes us to call it by the deliberately misleading name of Islamic State.
In addition to the one-off allocation of 12,000, another 10,000 visas were granted through the mainstream humanitarian program. These are Syrians, Iraqis and others displaced by the seven years of war. And still more visas are being granted in the current financial year so we won't know the final tally for some months.
Other countries take vastly more on a temporary basis, with Jordan and Turkey housing millions. But they will not be given citizenship and one day they will be asked to leave. Only one country has taken more from the Syrian conflict zone as refugees, accepted as permanent settlers - and that's Canada.
The third question is about a much longer-running saga, the dismal cases of the remaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island who will never be resettled in Australia under bipartisan national policy. There was some renewed attention this week to the offer from New Zealand to take 150 of them.
The bigger question is what's happening with the US deal, the one that Donald Trump wanted to ditch? "This is going to kill me," Trump told Turnbull in their infamous leaked phone call.
"I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country," he said, but now he was agreeing to take 2000 Australian rejects: "That puts me in a bad position. It makes me look so bad and I have only been here a week."
Turnbull pointed out to him that the deal agreed with Barack Obama was actually to take 1250. Turnbull talked him around and a reluctant Trump seemed to cop it on condition that he would conduct "extreme vetting".
So where's this up to? The US has approved and now taken 233 of the remaining asylum seekers to America as refugees. That's 19 per cent of the agreed number. The US has another 1100 in various stages of processing.
What of the "extreme vetting"? Of the candidates that US officials have so far screened, they've rejected about 10 per cent as security risks or on other grounds. Not too extreme, it seems. In short, the deal is well under way. No matter how distasteful he found the deal, Trump's America is honouring a promise made by Obama's. Remarkable.
Even if and when the Americans have taken their full quota, some hundreds will remain. The NZ offer will then likely be taken up. All this will still not be enough to find permanent homes for all the asylum seekers. The government will need to continue to seek further resettlement options.
Fourth is the big picture of Australia's immigration program. With Tony Abbott calling for a 42 per cent cut to the overall annual intake, and others taking up the cry, is the government about to slash the program?
Abbott speaks for many frustrated city dwellers when he calls for the annual intake to be cut "at least until infrastructure, housing stock and integration has better caught up”. With chronic congestion, housing priced beyond the reach of an entire generation in the biggest cities, and unease about some ethnic concentrations, Abbott's solution appears to be a masterstroke of a solution.
It's not. It's the definition of populism - an impractically simple solution to a complex set of problems. A country needs to build its infrastructure to the size of its population, not shrink its people to its infrastructure. Australia needs a big immigration intake mainly as a matter of national solvency - immigrants are younger and more skilled than the average population. They slow the pace of population aging, keeping health and welfare spending in check. And they increase net economic output per person.
Yet we've seen the Turnbull government defer to Abbott and those of his conservative colleagues on a range of issues. The annual immigration ceiling is set each year in the federal budget, which is being drawn up now for May 8 budget night. Is Turnbull about to appease Abbott and the right once again?
The answer is no. In fact, it hasn't been announced but the annual immigration figure for next financial year has already been decided. And it's not changing.
One reason is the Treasury has imposed a secret budget rule that is designed deliberately to make a big cut difficult. The Treasury has a long-standing set of rules, never published, that govern the way the budget is put together.
They're called the "budget process operating rules". One of the rules applies to immigration. On the assumption that every new skilled immigrant will get a job, earn an income and pay tax, every place in the program is assumed to add revenue to the federal budget.
If an immigration minister wants to cut the intake, he or she must offset the notional lost revenue. And the minister has to find the money elsewhere in his or her own portfolio.
Treasurer Scott Morrison gave an example of the size of this effect when he said that the Abbott proposal to cut the ceiling by 80,000 people would cost the budget $5 billion over four years. So under the Treasury rule, if Peter Dutton were to make such a cut he'd have to find savings of $5 billion elsewhere in his portfolio.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Department said that the rules were designed “to stop dramatic cuts” so that “people can’t go from an intake of 200,000 to 100,000”, which is pretty close to what Abbott is calling for, a cut from 190,000 to 110,000 a year.
A cabinet minister described the rule as “as a strange formula”. "If a minister wants to cut the program they have to find offsets," the minister said. "It’s weird science, essentially it means you can’t cut the intake”.
Peter Dutton has managed to subvert the rule. The annual intake used to be a target. It was there to be met. He redefined it as a ceiling. So he keeps the same ceiling of 190,000 and he gets to keep his budget. But a ceiling is an upper limit and if it's not reached that's classified as a budget variation. No penalty applies.
Dutton simultaneously has told his department to put greater emphasis on the integrity of applications to minimise fraud. The rejection rate has risen; the intake has fallen. The net result is that the department estimates that this year's intake will be about 170,000 - 20,000 short of the ceiling. But because it's a budget variation - not a cut to the initial ceiling - there's no penalty to Dutton's portfolio allocation. Weird science indeed. We should expect very much the same with next year's intake.
Furious debate rages on the fringes left and right. The less exciting truth is that, broadly speaking, the government is working its way towards centrist outcomes. Even under Peter Dutton. The centre is holding.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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