Messing with their heads

 

NICK CATER

The Australian, 15 September 2015

 

One can only assume James Carle­ton had missed the Zaky Mallah memo cautioning against putting dangerous radicals to air. That’s assuming of course that ABC management sent one.

“Ewen Jones, welcome to Breakfast,” said Carleton. “Nice to have you on the program. For the first time I think?”

“Yes,” the Townsville MP replied. “My first time on Radio National and I don’t get Fran Kelly.”

It is an open question whether Kelly would have risked giving Jones an open microphone. The member for Herbert’s dangerous views on coalmining and live cattle are no secret. More troubling still, Jones is a follower of Tony Abbott.

Yet Radio National listeners deserved to know. Why would someone who supports turning back the boats care a jot about Syrian refugees, let alone propose that we admit 50,000 of them?

“I do think we have to be very generous and compassionate at this time,” Jones told listeners.

“In the bush people think: ‘What would happen if that was me?’ And people stop and take care. And that’s the nature of Australia.”

Jones was seriously messing with Carleton’s head. How could an adverb like compassionate be part of a far north Queenslander’s vocabulary?

“The stereotypical view is that outside the capital cities they’re more unwelcoming than the people in capital cities,” said Carleton. “What do people in Townsville say?”

Carleton was not the only commentator who had difficulty reconciling the Coalition’s stance on border security with last week’s open-hearted extension of the humanitarian immigration program. Abbott haters struggled to hide their irritation. What could they criticise him for now?

“Reflexive cynicism,” The Age’s Julie Szego scoffed, “and an insult to national pride when Germany is prepared to welcome 800,000 displaced people and Finland’s millionaire Prime Minister Juha Sipila has invited asylum-seekers to camp at his country villa.”

The Prime Minister’s factual claim that Australia has the largest humanitarian program per capita in the world was dismissed as spin. It was “incredibly misleading”, declared Marc Fennell, the presenter of SBS’s The Feed. “Our refugee intake is third behind the US and Canada.”

Fennell’s wilful ignorance of the term per capita is symptomatic of the idle thinking that has marred the asylum-seeker debate since the Tampa. A government that protects the integrity of its borders and maintains an orderly migration program is accused of “pandering to racist sentiments”.

The open-borders advocates casually impugn the motives of their fellow Australians, labelling reasonable concerns about uncontrolled migration as illnesses. Popular support for turning back boats and offshore detention is ­diagnosed as xenophobia. To express a preference for Christian migrants is Islamophobia.

Now the language police are objecting to the word migrant. “Migrant is a political word that used to take away the real status of these people,” the saintly celebrity Bono lectured last week. “They are refugees.”

It is revealing that Bono should express a strong preference for the word refugee, with its overtones of haplessness and helplessness, over migrant, a person who makes an active decision to seek a better life.

The real purpose of such rhetoric, one fears, is not the protection of the huddled masses but to safeguard Bono’s elevated position in the moral universe. Political correctness separates the righteous from the ignorant, distinguishing them with a warm inner glow.

“Thousands turned out to deliver a simple message,” Lindy Kerin reported on the ABC’s AM the morning after a candlelight vigil in Sydney last week.

And what was that simple message? A GetUp! organiser speaking from the podium spelled it out.

“We should be so proud of ourselves standing here tonight with courage and compassion to say welcome,” he said. Cheers followed as the crowd gave itself a pat on the back.

Support for the refugee resettlement program is stronger than such posturing allows. The Scanlon Foundation’s Social ­Cohesion Survey reports that three in four Australians support the program.

The survey found that Australians draw a sharp distinction between refugees assessed overseas and those who arrived by boat. Only 24 per cent believed boat ­arrivals should be granted permanent residency.

It suggests that Jones was more in touch with public opinion than many at the ABC. John Howard’s words before the 2001 election — “we will decide, and nobody else, who comes to this country” — resonated widely. So did the seldom-quoted caveat that preceded it. “We will be compassionate, we will save lives, we will care for people.”

The exceptional success of Australia’s migration program is too often overlooked in the hand-wringing over refugees.

Proportionately, Australia’s overseas-born population (26 per cent) is more than twice as large as Germany’s (12.9 per cent) and Britain’s (12.4 per cent). It is three times larger than in France (8.5 per cent).

There is widespread anxiety in Britain about the size of the intake, 330,000 last year. Australia’s intake last year was twice as large in per capita terms, yet the number of new arrivals is seldom a matter of concern.

It suggests that the key to public acceptance is not the quantity of migrants but their character and the orderliness of their ­arrival.

The Abbott government’s determination to screen future ­arrivals under the humanitarian program will not just improve the chance that they will flourish but also the warmth of their welcome.

“If we’re going to bring people to this country on whatever visa is available, we must make sure that they are going to be able to participate in society,” Jones told Radio National.

“We must make sure that there are jobs available, that people are actually going to get out of their homes and meet other people and be accepted into our country.”

In a week of cant and posturing, the member for Herbert stood tall as the voice of common sense.