I found the sudden outbreak of controversy on Sudanese refugees very puzzling. My first concern was that, as with Tamworth, the treatment of the issue was going to do us global harm. Then I thought, just what are we talking about, how did this happen? So I started digging down.
I will talk about this in a moment. First, a reminder note on Tamworth.
A little over twelve months ago, a decision by Tamworth City Council to reject participation in a refugee resettlement program created national and international controversy. Tamworth was presented as racist. This did us great damage as a country. When I dug down, I found a far more complicated issue than that presented by the media. Those that are interested will find my last comment here, the main entry point here.
Mr Andrews has a bad habit of putting both feet in his mouth and then stomping around. We saw this in his treatment of the Haneef case where he just made things worse by his defensive comments. Even so, given the international firestorm created by Tamworth, I found the newspaper reports strange.
I started by checking blog postings because they give a time sensitive response pattern in a way that is much easier to follow than the normal Google searches. The first blog post that I could find was on 2 October. By 5 October, this had grown to nine pages.
I then checked Mr Andrews' ministerial web site. You will find the Minister's releases and door stops etc here. The first reference is in an interview on 2 October with Neil Mitchell on 3AW Mornings. Reading between the lines from Legal Eagle's post as well as the content, it appears that Mr Andrews' was responding to a Melbourne media beat up.
Now I do not think that Mr Andrew's handled Mr Mitchell's aggressive questioning especially well. But if you look at the transcript, I cannot see anything especially racist in the response.
Now look at the interview by the ABC's Lindy Burns later in the day. She is trying very hard to make it all an issue, including the previous but apparently unannounced reduction in the African refugee quota in the current financial year to 30 per cent of the total. Again, I cannot see anything especially racist in the Minister's response.
Note, by the way, Mr Andrew's reference to the cost of the refugee resettlement program. There are some issues here that I will come back to in a moment.
3 October began with an interview with Jon Faine, ABC Melbourne. Mr Faine's opening question set the tone: Why punish the African refugee community because of the acts of a few in experiencing difficulties assimilating in Australia? Mr Andrews responded: Well we're not doing that and can I start with the facts?
Again read the transcript carefully. There is nothing racist here, no race card. Note, too, the reference again to the extra $200 million put in to support to support refugee, especially African, refugee resettlement.
With this issue running hot, Mr Andrew's felt obliged to call a doorstop interview that same day. You will find the transcript here. Look at the tone of the questions. Mr Andrews is trying to explain that there are particular problems linked to background and education. Again, I can see nothing racist here.
Then later on the same day in a a radio interview with Philip Clark, Mr Andrews again states the special problems faced by Sudanese refugees.
Under all this pressure, the next day (4 October) Mr Andrews felt obliged to put out a special press release dealing with the problem. This is, I think, the release that The Age headlined on 5 October as Minister's African dossier renews racial tensions. Again read the release carefully. The release refers to problems and some complaints from communities. I can see nothing racist in it.
Now I want to leave this press controversy and return to the Tamworth story. As I do so, remember the extra $200 million.
There were two key issues in the Tamworth case.
The first is the rules of the refugee resettlement required community support. When Tamworth Council conducted a survey, they found conflict. The second issue was the perceived inadequacy in the Immigration Department back up for the program, given the refugees special problems.
Having rejected participation in the program, the media storm forced the revocation of the decision. So what has happened in Tamworth since now out of the media spotlight?
On 6 February, the Northern Daily Leader reported Armidale seeks greater resources for refugees. The story went on:
Tamworth came under fire for rejecting the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s refugee resettlement program but self-proclaimed “refugee welcome zone” – Armidale – isn’t jumping head first into the program either.
Armidale and Tamworth are old rivals, a bit like Sydney and Melbourne. Unlike Tamworth, the more politically savvy Armidale had agreed in principle to accept refugees around the same time Tamworth was approached, but only if the required support was there. Further, Armidale had formed a committee including refugee support groups to consider the issue. The net effect was the same.
On 20 February 2007, the Northern Daily Leader reported that a group of Sudanese refugees had arrived in Tamworth to a warm welcome. However, these refugees had not come under the refugee program. Rather, all four had come to Tamworth under the family re-union program.
There is then a long gap until 4 May when the Mayor claimed that Council was not dragging the chain on refugee resettlement. According to the Mayor:
...the next move was up to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, which he said "has some serious problems".
"There's been a change of minister, a change of policies. [Council] hasn't heard anything at all," Cr Treloar said yesterday.
"The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has our proposal on the resettlement program and we are waiting for a response. We are not looking at any proposal from the department; we are waiting for them to consider ours."
There has been nothing since.
Link all this to the $200 million in new funding that I referred to.
If I read all the tea leaves correctly, the core problem is nothing to do with all the current press stories. Rather, the problem is that even with the spend of an extra $200 million, we do not have the money to support the resettlement program.
Here Armidale people have argued that the Sudanese refugees require what is essentially a major training program to give them the skills they need to settle into Australia. This is not a criticism of the Sudanese. Rather, it is an assessment of a skills gap.
This is what Minister Andrews has been referring too and quite explicitly in some of his remarks. The real story is not a furphy about racism, but really the amount of money we are prepared to spend to help people.
My personal view is that we should be prepared to develop the new approaches and to spend the cash required to help people settle in. But that is just my view