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Hewson's view

Dutton’s attack on Fraser shows how low our politicians are willing to go on refugees

AAP/Lukas Coch

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Read between the lines. I am deliberately adding fuel to the anti-immigration, anti-refugee “movement”.

How else can you interpret Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s recent sustained attacks on Malcolm Fraser’s immigration policies?

How else can you explain the timing, so soon after Donald Trump’s anti-establishment victory, on the heels of the rebirth of Pauline Hanson, and as Bill Shorten was seeking to capitalise on this sentiment by attacking the 457-visa program.

Dutton initially claimed Fraser “did make mistakes in bringing some people in” as part of his government’s immigration policies in the 1970s. When pressed on those comments in parliament this week, Dutton singled out people of Lebanese-Muslim background. He said:

The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background.

It is as if the assessment processes in the 1970s, thorough as they were, could possibly have anticipated the likely roles of future generations to be born of those immigrants, long before anyone contemplated September 11, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the advent of Islamic State, and so on.

The attempt to “blame” Fraser is both farcical and grossly irresponsible – simply a cheap political shot.

Surely, subsequent governments ran a similar, indeterminate risk – as is the Turnbull government, even despite the thoroughness of its due diligence. The only logical conclusion of Dutton’s position is that he wishes to close our borders completely.

How low can our political leaders go in what has become a national disgrace, this appalling race to the bottom, scoring short-term political points on each other, as to who can be the toughest, who can be the most inhumane, to those who are globally among the most desperate, fleeing persecution, imprisonment, and even death?

But, in all this, the hypocrisy is also breathtaking, gloatingly claiming credit for our record in refugee resettlement over many decades while implicitly suggesting that our borders should be closed.

Importantly, while the government has recognised the desperate need to rely on the co-operation of the Islamic communities to out potential terrorists as an essential element of its national security and anti-terrorism strategy, Dutton has sought to name and shame a particular segment of that community: Lebanese-Muslims.

This could prove to be very costly and counterproductive. Similarly, whatever may be the merits of slightly different wording in Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, this is not the time to be fiddling around on this issue. It runs the risk of a very divisive public debate.

Government today should not be seen merely as an extension of university politics. This issue is not just another opportunity to score cheap political points on opponents. It goes to the very heart of what we stand for, and believe in, as a nation – and how we wish to be seen by the rest of the world.

We are, after all, now mostly a nation of immigrants. Not wishing, in any way, to downplay the significance of our Indigenous heritage, nor to underestimate the magnitude and significance of the reconciliation challenges that remain, our greatest national achievement since the second world war is our tolerant and sensitive, multiracial, multireligious, multicultural society.

While it is already the envy of the world, it remains a work in progress – the further development of which calls for commitment, understanding, and sensitivity.

Malcolm Turnbull has missed another opportunity to show real leadership. While he didn’t directly endorse Dutton’s specific remarks, his attempt to defend Dutton as an “outstanding” immigration minister, a “thoughtful and committed and passionate” Minister, should leave everyone cold.

History will judge Fraser’s attitudes, values and policies toward immigration and refugees, both in and beyond government, to have dwarfed anything that Dutton might even aspire to achieve.

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