Business must take the lead on refugees

When our business leaders venture into Asia in the decades ahead, do we want to be seen as rich and comfortably disengaged from the issues afflicting our region or as part of a regional solution?

An old Englishwoman once told me how, during the second world war, she'd sat with her mother on hotel balcony in Montreux, Switzerland, and was able to see the glow of French villages being burned by the Nazis on the other side of Lake Geneva.

She was perfectly safe – enough vested interests in Germany had their gold locked up in Swiss banks, and, truth be told, quite a few from the allies' side. Armed neutrality had long worked for Switzerland because it was small, with a well-armed, well trained population, and it looked after the world's dirtiest money.

Seventy years on, and one might be forgiven for thinking Australian politicians see Australia as the Switzerland of the Pacific Rim.

We're smallish (only 186 times the size of Switzerland), well armed (if you consider fishing rods to be weapons), well trained (if Little Athletics counts) and are a home for lots of hot, if not dirty, money.

As such, we can ignore most of South East Asia. While their villages burn (or in this case begin to bulge with seaborne refugee arrivals), we can sit in complete safety on the balcony of a Darwin hotel, and peer across the Timor Sea, toasting our good fortune.

... It's a wild fantasy, but such would have to be the vision of our political leaders for the current refugee policies of either the ALP or Coalition to make any sense.

Australia has long boasted that its humanitarian refugee resettlement program is the second largest in the world, after the US. We take just over 13,000 a year – a figure that is being increased by the Gillard government to 20,000. And although Tony Abbott initially supported this increase, he now says he'll stick with 13,000 because we can't afford to do more.

And that's where Australia's boast comes unstuck. Yes, we have a good resettlement program, offering traumatised refugees one of the best English language and cultural education programs in the world.

But that's all we take – we have a one-in-one-out policy for boat arrivals that pushes processed refugees, waiting to board planes, off the list.

All those other countries have permeable borders, and take tens or hundreds of thousands of economic migrants or 'legitimate' refugees each year. In the US, it's Mexicans. In southern Europe, it's North Africans, sub-Saharan refugees or people fleeing bloodshed in the Horn of Africa. In Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, it's various mixes of Afghans, Burmese, Sri Lankans, and so on.

In short, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are on our doorstep, but unlike all of those countries, we are distant enough to attempt to control the flow of people – even Christmas Island, the most frequently used landing point, is around 400 kilometres from Indonesia.

Hence the 'Switzerland of the South' fantasy. John Howard put it best, with his famous line "we will decide who comes to Australia, and the circumstance in which they come".

And then he implemented a fairly ruthless set of policies that for a time 'stopped the boats', though expert opinion (not least the Houston panel) doesn't think those policies can work again, primarily because Indonesia won't allow boat 'tow-backs'.

But even if we could throw up a Swiss-style defence, is that in Australia's best interests?

The heated policy debate this year (The boats bill must be allowed to pass, June 28) became a matter of urgency due to the documented drowning of hundreds of refugees, and the undocumented deaths of many hundreds more.

Agreed: stopping the drownings is imperative.

However, this objective is distracting attention from the longer-term question: if Australia wishes to prosper and participate fully as a 'middle-power' in the Asian Century, it cannot do so as the Switzerland of the south.

It's time, I believe, for the business community to show leadership on this issue that neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott have been able to muster.

Many business leaders have refugee roots of their own ­- billionaires Frank Lowy and Harry Triguboff spring to mind, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. We know from decades of experience that refugees, grateful for a second go at life, work hard, build businesses and wealth and, in the overwhelming majority, are model citizens.

When our business leaders venture into Asia in the decades ahead, do we want to be seen as rich and comfortably disengaged from the issues afflicting our region, or as part of a regional solution?

Even at the level of cynical self-interest, we know that demand for low or unskilled labour can be filled, in some cases, by humanitarian refugees – fruit growers around Shepperton in Victoria, for instance, have benefited hugely from employing resettled Iraqis. Many low skilled jobs in the mining regions are filled by itinerant backpackers – and while it might seem callous to try to offer this kind of work to refugees, the choice between that kind of job and languishing for years to come in a refugee camp in Kenya or northern Thailand, is not difficult to make.

Stopping the drownings is a legitimate policy objective. Stopping an increase in our share of our region's refugee resettlement task is not.

Politicians won't find the guts to raise this issue, but business leaders, and business lobby groups can.