Peter Dutton’s Comments Underline Australia’s ‘Real’ Problem With Refugees

This isn't just about racism.

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Two weeks in and we’re already at the “illiterate refugees are going to steal all of our jobs” stage of the campaign. How bloody good are Australian elections?

In what looked like a pretty obvious, and fairly desperate, attempt to shift the political narrative towards safer ground for the Coalition, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declared on Sky News this week that refugees “won’t be numerate or literate in their own language let alone English” and “would be taking Australian jobs and there is no question about that”.

Dutton’s comments were made in response to proposals from the Greens and Labor to boost Australia’s annual intake of refugees and, to be clear, are moronic, nonsensical, xenophobic, and not backed up by any data whatsoever. Even though we should probably be used to our politicians just making stuff up to suit their agenda by now, it’s still quite jarring having incredibly senior and powerful government ministers quote South Park in order to defend their retrograde views on asylum seekers. And just in case you thought this was an instance of Peter Dutton just being Peter Dutton, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has since backed up his views, arguing that Dutton’s point was “self-evident”.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that far from being a drain on taxpayers, refugees are actually net-contributors to our economy. They don’t “steal jobs”; they create them, they pay tax and they consume goods and services, helping keep the economy ticking along. In fact, a study commissioned by the Department of Immigration (you know, the one currently run by Peter Dutton) found that refugees had a higher level of workforce participation than the Australian-born population. The report also found that refugees are particularly entrepreneurial and adept at establishing small- to medium-sized businesses. Given the government’s current obsession with start-ups, “innovation” and “agility”, they sound exactly like the people we should be rolling out the red carpet for.

And far from “stealing Australian jobs”, the Department of Immigration found that refugees “often fill important labour shortages in the economy by working in low skill, low paid positions, which are difficult to fill from the Australian born labour force”. In other words, they don’t steal “Aussie jobs”; they do the low-paid work that we don’t do ourselves.

Election Campaigns Are Run On Emotion, Not Facts

But here’s the thing. As factually wrong as Dutton is, his comments were strategically crafted to tap into the anxiety many Australian voters have about refugees, and migration more generally, in the lead-up to the election. Politics is less a contest of facts and figures and more a battle of emotions. Even though there’s no evidence refugees take away jobs from Australian-born workers, many Australians still have a fear that their economic security and wellbeing is under threat from hordes of migrants.

That’s the anxiety Dutton is trying to tap into. And I think it’s an anxiety that too many progressive commentators and refugee advocates dismiss out of hand, rather than seriously engage with.

Anyone who has even vaguely engaged with Australian politics in recent years knows that refugee policies play a big, big part in our national political conversation. The BBC even has a handy explainer on them. There’s a lot of debate around why exactly our refugee policies are so harsh compared to the rest of the world (the UN has just said they are illegal again). Some argue it’s about ingrained racism across Australian society.

I think that’s a factor, but I don’t think that “racism” tells the whole story, and it doesn’t help us extricate ourselves from the current mess. Dutton’s intervention highlights another serious driver behind Australia’s anxiety with refugees: economic insecurity. International studies have shown that voter concern with migration, including refugee flows, tends to increase in periods of economic recession and higher unemployment. Data from the ABC’s Vote Compass back in 2013 showed lower-income voters without university degrees from the suburbs, regional and rural areas were the most likely to hold negative views towards refugees.

Conversely, higher-income, university-educated voters in the inner city were more likely to be more welcoming towards refugees. Interestingly, there was no difference between migrants and Australian-born voters on the issue. The data suggests that concern about refugees is pretty closely linked to class and economic security. Voters who are feeling the stress of insecure employment, low pay and unaffordable housing are more likely to feel threatened by an influx of migrants that politicians are warning will steal their jobs.

It’s absolutely cynical stuff by our so-called political “leaders” but it’s calculated to tap into the real concerns of voters in marginal seats. Dutton’s “argument” is wrong and deserves to be ignored, but the material concerns of voters he’s trying to manipulate do not.

So Where To From Here?

Refugee advocates often feel frustrated that the important facts they keep patiently explaining to the public about Australia’s refugee policy are regularly ignored. I can understand that frustration, but sometimes in politics facts aren’t everything (as evidenced by the fact Peter Dutton is our Immigration Minister). What Dutton’s comments show is that if the progressive side of politics wants to win the refugee debate it needs to more seriously engage with the real economic concerns voters have, rather then dismissing them as “ignorant” or “racist”.

The saddest thing about the current situation is that many of the economic problems voters are anxious about, like affordable housing, crumbling infrastructure and job security, are the result of a complete failure of political action. But instead of doing something to fix the issues, politicians are choosing to scapegoat refugees.

If economic concerns are underlying anxieties about refugees, it makes sense to try and address them at the same time as building the case for why Australia should adopt a more humane policy and increase its refugee quota.

When the politicians in charge of our immigration policies pull out inaccurate, xenophobic comments in a desperate attempt to win an election, it can make us feel pretty despondent about the chance for something better. But as hard as it is to believe, there is a tiny silver lining in what Peter Dutton said this week. If refugee advocates are willing to engage with voters about their real concerns, it makes it harder for those concerns to be exploited by cynical, manipulative politicians.

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney-based writer and broadcaster. You can follow him on Twitter at@oz_f