FAIRFAX BREAKING POLITICS
MONDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2015
SUBJECT/S: Syrian refugee crisis; Two years of the Abbott Government.
CHRIS HAMMER: Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh, good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning.
HAMMER: Andrew Laming to you first. Should Australia be taking more refugees from Syria in total?
ANDREW LAMING, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: We will be taking more in total as a portion of all refugees, that number increases from 13,000 to 18,750 in 2018-2019.
HAMMER: That was always going to happen though so special circumstances, should Australia be taking more people?
LAMING: This is a major humanitarian catastrophe and I think Australia, by going to Europe and saying we're part of the solution, by offering to take more places that take months to process, we’re actually saying to Europe that by having intact borders we can do more. Australia is showing that we've sorted out our own borders and we can now be part of solution to the European exceptional circumstance like this.
HAMMER: So what are you suggesting?
LAMING: I think we will be taking more and I think we'll be taking more than the current 30 per cent ratio. I think that this is a holding position until a further figure is arrived at in a few weeks.
HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, how many Syrian refugees should Australia take?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I think we should take more, Chris. But not because we're taking less refugees from other countries. It's not as though the situation in South Sudan or Iraq and Afghanistan has gotten significantly better over the past years. Yet one of the first acts upon coming to office was the Abbott Government cutting the refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750. It's not good enough to send people up into Geneva with a plan of shuffling around refugees from different countries. We ought to be going over there saying Australia will take more refugees. Labor would like to see us take 27,000 refugees and the Government should immediately reverse its cut to the refugee intake.
HAMMER: Your personal view, Andrew Laming, would 27,000 be appropriate?
LAMING: Well, going from 13,000 to 18,000 by 2018 is a good increase. It's one thing to promise 20,000 –
HAMMER: That was before this crisis though, that increase.
LAMING: Of course. And what we've done now is contain the borders, restore order to the process and now we can start increasing the humanitarian numbers which we'll do. As I said, it'll be discussions over in Europe with the UNHCR that will decide what we get. But in the short-term we need safe havens; we need solutions back at home because even Europe doesn’t really fully appreciate how large this catastrophe could come.
HAMMER: Ok, Andrew Lamming, the Prime Minister both today and yesterday in talking about these issues said that Australia should look at taking more, and especially look at taking persecuted minorities. That has been interpreted in some sections has meaning we should take more Christians rather than Muslims. What are your thoughts on that?
LAMING: Well persecuted minorities certainly from Afghanistan were not all Christian. It's important to have groups that are absolutely, under the treaty, subject to persecution and they are the groups he's articulating. But what we're dealing with now is inordinately large numbers; even these UNHCR numbers don't begin to scratch the surface. So really the bigger challenge is five-figure or six-figure migration; Europe is going to be struggling back for a very long time if they don't find a domestic solution.
HAMMER: There is an element of discrimination with the refugee intake, with the Government saying we're going to take more Syrians and less something else. So is it also fair enough to say: look we're thinking about the cohesion of our own society here, we should take more Christians rather than Muslims or something. Is that appropriate or not?
LAMING: It doesn't happen as far as I'm aware. We deal directly with the UNHCR in these border camps, determine the status of refugees and take them typically based on their refugee status, not their resumes.
HAMMER: So what does the Prime Minister mean then when he says we should especially look at persecuted minorities?
LAMING: I think what he's saying is that we shouldn't just look at economic catastrophe but at groups that have no chance of surviving persecution at home in Syria, and those groups are pretty much at the sharpest end of ISIS persecution.
HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, what are your thoughts on this? There's the need to be offered humanitarian assistance but given the refugees accepted as refugees in Australia are accepted here permanently, should there be a kind of an allocation for so-called persecuted minorities, including Christians?
LEIGH: Well Chris, I think Andrew Laming spelt the principle well there. The refugee convention talks about a well-founded fear of persecution and that should be our touchstone. We ought to work with the UNHCR to find who is in greatest fear of persecution. Australia has done extremely well in terms of managing to ensure the humanitarian entrance becomes part of Australian society. You look to great refugees, Les Murray, Frank Lowy, Anh Do. There are so many refugees that have added greatly to the texture of Australian society.
HAMMER: OK, let's move on. Today is the second anniversary of the Abbott Government. Let's flip it around a bit – Andrew Leigh, can I ask you: I know you're critical in all sorts of ways of the Abbott Government but what have they done right? What should we be saying, at least in this area the Government has done well?
LEIGH: Well Chris, I think they have made a significant contribution to political comedy in Australia. 'The Thick of It' has a word: ‘omnishambles’ and I think that best sums up the last few years. Comedy writers would struggle to describe a Government which has given a knighthood to a Duke, which has declared war on windfarms, which thinks that same-sex marriage can't even be debated in the Federal Parliament, which ran to the election saying that debt and deficits were the key economic issue and then doubled the deficit just in the last 12 months. We’ve now got a higher unemployment rate than we had during the Global Financial Crisis – this from the group of people that said that their election would be a shot of adrenaline to the Australian economy – and consumer confidence is now down 11 per cent since the election. It is a veritable omnishambles.
HAMMER: Seriously though, voters are rather cynical about politics and politicians. Part of that is the constant point-scoring. Here's an opportunity, just in one area, to nominate something which the Government has done well.
LEIGH: I think the free trade agreements which the Government managed to strike with Japan and Korea were worthwhile achievements. I think they've worked on those agreements and they're solid agreements. I'd also like to see the China agreement signed. That's an important agreement for Australia, we just need to sit down and work through the labour market testing provisions. But I am also making a serious point, Chris. I think across the board Australia isn't laughing at a Government which has done so much damage to the economy. Growth forecasts have been downgraded every quarter since the Government's first budget came down, and that means that more Australians are looking for work than would otherwise be the case.
HAMMER: Andrew Laming, can I also flip it. Part of your job is to defend the record of the Government. Where has that record disappointed you, where has the Government failed?
LAMING: We've had a commodity crisis with international shocks and we haven't convinced the Australian people that we, alone, can save them from that. We started very hard last year with a budget that people weren't ready for. By the time they woke up to the crisis, which was this year, we had a budget that said we did most of the hard work last year. So now they're saying: where to next? I think Australians want to know what we're going to fight for 12 months from now. The truism in politics is that your fate is almost entirely determined by what you do in the last of your three years in office. So the clock starts now. In Kevin Rudd's era it was a very humble vessel called the Oceanic Viking that just cruised over the horizon. Up until then everything was swimmingly comfortable for Kevin Rudd and within six months he was completely dismantled. So the thing that Tony Abbott is, is consistent. We do have periods which attention is taken off our core business but in the end, you know he's going to be there at the next election.
HAMMER: Can I just distill that down, if you were to put a finger on the failure of the Government in the past two years is it that you haven't sold your economic message well?
LAMING: We could certainly improve that. Most Governments struggle to do that. But some of our promises at the last election, we found ourselves delivering on those within three or six months. So what are we fighting for in the next 12 months? Australians want a clear message that they're in safe hands and the free trade agreement is going to play very well for us. I think it's charitable for Andrew to recognise that, but we need a bit more than that, Australians need a very strong reason to re-elect.
HAMMER: OK, Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh thanks for your time.
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