View from The Hill

Abbott juggles the political pressures on Syrian refugees

An estimated 10,000 people, including many children, attended a candlelit vigil in Sydney to show support for refugees. Richard Ashen/AAP

Tony Abbott is wedged between the hard right in the Coalition and commentariat on the one hand, and Liberal moderates, compassionate conservatives and pragmatists on the other, as the government considers how many refugees to accept from the Syrian crisis and the expansion of Australia’s overall humanitarian intake.

Abbott was initially caught out. He failed to anticipate what a number of his backbenchers on Tuesday identified as the community sentiment, with MPs picking up that people want Australia to adopt a generous approach.

The government ought to make its decisions on the basis of what Australia morally should, and practically can, do. But political considerations will be as, or more, important in the thinking of Abbott and his strategists.

Given his relatively fragile leadership, the hard right’s position is significant for Abbott. But equally, in view of the government’s parlous polling, so is perceived public sentiment.

Outspoken Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, and a government whip, Andrew Nikolic, are publicly dubious about the outpouring of compassion, urging a cautious approach.

NSW Premier Mike Baird, the most popular Liberal politician in the country, has been the political flag carrier for those Liberals who want Australia to do all it can.

The evolution of Abbott’s stand over the last few days is instructive, as he followed, rather than led, opinion.

With emotion high over the moving photograph of drowned child Aylan Kurdi, Abbott on Friday was asked about the Barnaby Joyce’s call for Australia to take more Syrian refugees. There was no sign he was galvanised. “We are doing exactly what Barnaby has suggested,” he said.

Abbott also said, responding to a New York Times editorial criticising his asylum seeker policies: “It’s obviously a crisis right now on the borders of Europe and I think a lot of people right around the world are looking at what we’ve done and said: ‘Well, if Australia can stop the people smuggling trade, if Australia can end the deaths at sea, perhaps we can learn from them’.”

Abbott’s default position on borders, no matter whose they are, is that they should be impenetrable.

But suddenly he found himself in difficult new circumstances. By Sunday, with feeling building and after discussion with senior colleagues, Abbott was dispatching Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to Europe for talks with refugee authorities on what Australia could do.

While the image of the toddler struck an enormous chord with many Australians, some in Abbott’s “base” and those who speak for it reacted sceptically.

Commentator Andrew Bolt wrote on Monday that “Aylan’s family, while originally from the Syrian border town of Kobani, recently besieged by Islamic State, had actually been living in safety in Turkey for three years”. The child was not a refugee, the family was not fleeing danger, Bolt wrote – rather, Aylan’s father sought to get to Europe, via a people smuggler, particularly to obtain dental treatment.

In the Senate on Monday night, Bernardi repeated the account.

“I do not believe there is any need for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people to be ditching their identification and trying to get into Europe for reasons of safety,” Bernardi said. “Many of these people have been very safely ensconced, working and housed in places like Turkey for many years.

"This seems to me to be becoming an opportunistic cycle which is masking the true humanitarian need that is the responsibility of all Western nations. That is the challenge for us to distinguish between those who are being opportunistic and those are truly in need. Australia will back those truly in need.”

Nikolic, meanwhile, condemned those “trying to out-compassion each other”.

But the voices on the other side of the argument are stronger. On Monday’s ABC Q&A, Baird suggested that perhaps the 10,000 one-off intake Labor has proposed was not enough. Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett has said 50,000 should come – and the government should not extend Australia’s bombing to Syria, as it is about to do.

Queensland federal Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones believes Australia could take 30,000 to 50,000. “I want us to lead,” Jones says. “I know we can’t solve the problem, but I want us to do more than our bit.”

A debate on Syrian refugees started at Tuesday’s meeting of the parliamentary Liberal Party and extended into the joint parties meeting, which includes the Nationals, with some 17 speakers in all.

Tasmanian Liberal Brett Whiteley, a conservative, said there had been a decisive shift in the mood of the electorate – a point a number of other speakers echoed – and the government needed to move with “the heart beat of our communities”.

Some MPs said the very people who had backed a tough border policy were now wanting the government to do more on Syrian refugees.

According to party sources, in the debate those favouring generosity were the majority and they crossed factional lines.

A minimalist position, that would be acceptable to the right, would be to bring forward the increase in the humanitarian category that the present policy provides for – from the current annual 13,750 to 18,750 by 2018-19.

Such a limited response would, however, fall far short of the generosity many Liberals want – and know the community is demanding.

To be credible, the government needs to approve a significant intake from the Syrian crisis and expand the total humanitarian program so refugees from other sources are not affected.

The cabinet’s national security committee (NSC) was due to hear from Peter Dutton in a Tuesday evening hook-up. There will be a cabinet meeting to discuss what the NSC comes up with and probably another joint parties meeting.

Unlike the bombing of Syria, where there is no doubt what the government will announce, precisely where the NSC and the cabinet will land on the numbers of Syrian and total refugees was not known late on Tuesday, as Abbott juggled the conflicting pressures.

Politically, the terms for and composition of the Syrian intake will be nearly as scrutinised as the numbers.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has raised the prospect that some could be on safe haven – limited time – visas, though that would not be practical for those unlikely ever to have a hope of returning home.

The government will want to take families and minorities, especially Christians, whose plight was highlighted by Malcolm Turnbull on Monday and Eric Abetz on Tuesday.

Those on the right have made it clear to Abbott the increased intake should not include young single Muslim men.

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