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“THIS newspaper has said it before, we say it again today and we will repeat it until honesty and decency replace cynicism and dog-whistle tactics: Australia does not have an asylum-seeker problem; Australia has a political leadership problem.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has reinforced our concerns with his call to cut the humanitarian intake of refugees by 6500. He has combined this cynical appeal with an outright falsehood; he is utterly wrong when he says asylum seekers who arrive without a visa and/or passport are acting illegally. Not only is it not illegal to seek asylum after arriving without papers, Australia, as a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, has an obligation to accept asylum seekers. Another of Mr Abbott’s disingenuous positions is that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are ”queue jumpers”. There is no queue; in many of the places where asylum seekers come from, there is no consular mechanism for making applications.

Both Mr Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are guilty of seeking to fan undue fears in the community that Australia is in danger of being overrun by refugees. Instead of appealing to the generosity and enlightened self-interest of the population, they are seeking to win votes in marginal seats, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, by stoking base, uninformed notions that refugees drain and strain the community.

Our nation is built on immigration, and the people who have come here from so many nations have enriched us socially, economically and culturally.

Australia takes relatively few asylum seekers. Compared to our national wealth as measured by gross domestic product, we rank 60th in the world. By total number of asylum seekers, we rank 23rd. Compared to our population, we rank 32nd. For several years, our targeted humanitarian intake has been 13,500 – out of a total immigration program of, this year, 190,000. There are more than 15 million refugees in the world.

Four of the five nations that host the biggest number of refugees are poor, relative to Australia. Pakistan has close to 2 million, Iran and Syria close to 1 million, and Kenya and Jordan around half a million.

Mr Abbott’s latest move is all the more reprehensible for his statement that cutting the humanitarian intake from the 20,000 to which it was recently raised in response to the Houston report, would be beneficial to the budget. The government needlessly spends $1 billion of taxpayers’ money each year on mandatory detention and offshore processing. The nation’s fiscal position would be significantly improved were asylum seekers processed onshore and within the community. That is a far cheaper option, and an eminently sensible one given that as many as nine in 10 boat asylum seekers are found to be genuine. Getting them into the community and employment would carry duel economic benefits – lower processing costs and increased revenue through the taxes these immigrants would be paying.

The flow of refugees globally is primarily a function of regional conflicts from which people flee in fear of their very lives, rather than the immigration and other policies of various nations. As we head towards an election, this newspaper is calling on political leaders to have the courage to speak the truth and rationally appeal to what is best in our people”