Sorry Jacinda – Australia is lapping us on refugees

by Bernard Lagan / 28 November, 2017
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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, my old colleague from the Sydney Morning Herald, the writer, republican – and erstwhile Australian rugby international – Peter FitzSimons, called for a chat. New Zealand, under Jacinda Ardern, was on his mind.

FitzSimons’ lavish assessment appeared soon after – prominently – in newspapers on both sides of the Tasman. New Zealand, he wrote, was lapping its neighbour on race relations, marriage equality and with its independent foreign policy; even the removal of Jesus and the Queen from Parliament’s prayer was testament to the renaissance. He was derided in Australia – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph suggested he emigrate – and lauded in New Zealand.

FitzSimons knows New Zealand better than most of his compatriots; he has visited regularly since his Wallabies debut in the late-1980s. Yet, I suspect that like many other Australians, he yearns less for a supposedly more progressive New Zealand than for its political machinery that – for now – appears to work a lot better than Australia’s sour Parliament, which is riven by bitter acolytes of the deposed Tony Abbott and a merciless Opposition Labor Party.

Ardern is free of those and other upheavals – such as dual-citizen MPs being suddenly disbarred, resulting in the loss of the Government’s majority – that frustrate Australia’s governance.

When Ardern and her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, met on a rainy Sunday in early November at Kirribilli House, his official Sydney residence, Turnbull displayed a studied warmth that lacked any flashes of entitled impatience. The New Zealand Prime Minister returned the love. But not for long.

Ahead of a second meeting between the pair, in the Philippines in the middle of the month, Ardern let fly over the 600 male refugees and asylum seekers Australia has shipped to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, declaring “harm is being done” and “we don’t see what’s happening there as acceptable”. She said New Zealand would give $3 million to aid the men, most of whom are refusing to leave the island’s now-shuttered Australian detention centre. Why? Three new centres in the nearby town of Lorengau, built at the expense of the Australian taxpayer, are ready to receive the asylum seekers. They are all open facilities, where no one is detained.

It was a surprisingly ill-considered intervention by the New Zealand leader, who had already renewed John Key’s offer for New Zealand to take 150 of the men. There she might have wisely left it.

Australia can’t accept New Zealand’s offer without breaking its core vow: that no asylum seeker coming on a people-smuggler’s boat will be allowed in. With New Zealand citizenship, they would be free to enter Australia. The Australian Labor Party has the same policy.

By continuing to hector Australia, Ardern has antagonised the Turnbull Government and demonstrated a shallow appreciation of the realities Australia faces in deterring people smugglers. The seaborne asylum-seeker traffic to Australia peaked in 2012 when more than 17,000 arrived. The number reached just under 5000 in one month. Nearly 2000 have drowned at sea trying to reach Australia in a dozen years. The flow – and drownings – stopped only when Australia began turning back boats and shipping to its offshore detention centres those who made it.

The Key and Bill English governments knew that some of the boats turned back by the Australian Navy had New Zealand as their ultimate destination.

Lest anyone consider Australia closed to the neediest, it is worth remembering that in the past year, the country accepted 22,000 refugees, most referred to it by the United Nations refugee agency. New Zealand? Its annual quota is a miserable 750, which might increase – Winston Peters permitting – to 1500 under the new Government.

Sorry, Fitz, but Australia is lapping New Zealand.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This column was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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