The New South Wales premier, Mike Baird, has outlined the most generous travel concessions to asylum seekers of any state government, declaring there is little point in having a strong economy unless it is used to help the vulnerable.
Baird has described asylum seekers as “one of the most vulnerable in our society, often living below the poverty line” and said it was important to provide travel concessions because services for them are dispersed, which can increase social isolation.
His move, coming two days after the state budget, is a clear contrast to the Coalition’s stance towards asylum seekers at a federal level, which has centred on Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” campaign to ensure those at sea do not reach Australia.
Baird’s announcement also comes weeks after his friend and fellow Liberal leader, the prime minister Tony Abbott, refused to rule out that Australian officials had paid people smugglers to turn back to Indonesia. He used several interviews to suggest his government would stop asylum seeker boats “by hook or by crook”.
Under the NSW changes, the adults in the 8,000-strong group of eligible asylum seekers will be able to claim a gold pension concession card from 1 January 2016, which means applicants will receive a $2.50 ticket for all-day travel across state transport systems.
“I am of the view that Australia is the lucky country and we have a responsibility to help those who have nowhere else to turn,” Baird said. “NSW is Australia’s economic powerhouse but there is little point in having a strong economy unless we use this strength to help the vulnerable among us.
“NSW has shown we are prepared to help asylum seekers in our community and we want to do even more. This group is one of the most vulnerable in our society, often living below the poverty line. Evidence suggests that lack of access to dispersed services is a key impediment to their health and wellbeing.”
Being unable to travel creates social isolation which leads to deteriorating mental and physical health,” the premier said. “This change allows those NGOs to be putting more of their limited resources into food, counselling and housing – where it is needed most.”
To be eligible, asylum seekers must holding a bridging visa or be applying for one; be over 17 years of age; and be receiving aid from a designated agency.
At an Australia Day lunch in January, before the state election in March, Baird called on the prime minister to do more to help refugees, saying Australia was a “lucky country” and its people should “open our arms to those around the world who are much less fortunate than us”.
Last month the premier repeated the sentiment when the NSW government became the first state to sign up in principle to the federal safe haven enterprise visa scheme, which gives people assessed to be refugees the opportunity to gain five-year visas if they are prepared to work or study outside cities.
“As Australia’s economic powerhouse, NSW has an obligation to open its arms to those who are genuine refugees,” he said, adding that the state stood ready to “take more than our fair share”.
Baird’s father, Bruce, is a former state minister and federal Liberal MP who opposed the Howard government’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers. He now chairs the refugee resettlement advisory committee under Australia’s social services minister, Scott Morrison.
The NSW concession will allow eligible asylum seekers to travel on the Opal network at a capped price of $2.50 a day, equivalent to the gold Opal card.
In Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, asylum seekers receive concessions of 50% off regular fares. In Victoria the daily fare is capped at $3.76 and in the ACT it is capped at $4.40.
The NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, said the changes would allow more asylum seekers to “participate more fully in our society”.
“Many of the asylum seekers in NSW are at the very start of the process of applying for a protection visa,” Constance said. “This means that they need access to a wide range of services in order to navigate this process and rebuild their lives.”