7 Sep 2015

National out of step on refugees

10:10 am on 7 September 2015

Power Play - It is a rare day in Parliament when the National Party is completely isolated on an issue, but on the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe it has found itself strangely out of step.

Syrian refugees and migrants along a railway line as they try to cross from Serbia into Hungary near Horgos.

Syrian refugees and migrants along a railway line as they try to cross from Serbia into Hungary near Horgos. Photo: AFP

Usually National can rely on ACT to back it up, but even that support party thought Prime Minister John Key was wrong at the start of the week for refusing to consider lifting the annual refugee quota, or accept an emergency intake.

The refugee crisis is not new, but has come to greater prominence as Europe grapples with tens of thousands of refugees, and the photo of the young Turkish boy, Aylan Kurdi, found dead on a beach galvanises public opinion around the world.

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The refugee crisis is not new but has come to greater prominence. Photo: AFP

The vision of thousands of distressed people inevitably directed focus onto New Zealand's current policy, which was introduced with an annual quota of 800 people in 1987, and reduced to 750 ten years later.

At his post-Cabinet news briefing on Monday, Mr Key argued New Zealand was doing its bit, and to accept more refugees would disadvantage those already here, or who would eventually come here under the 750 quota.

He also rejected a call for an emergency intake on the same grounds.

And, Mr Key said, New Zealand stands out as one of the countries that actually has a set quota for refugees.

John Key during bridge run 25/08/15

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

That stance was questioned by opposition parties and all three of National's support partners, who argued that New Zealand had a moral obligation to act in the face of such a crisis, particularly when countries in Europe, the Middle East and Scandinavia were opening their doors to tens of thousands of people fleeing their homeland.

Even the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who is not averse to playing the immigration card, said the Government should do more, with the qualifier this country's "mass" immigration policy should be re-examined.

As the week drew on, the opposition rhetoric became more intense, more laden with emotion, and much more pointedly aimed at the Prime Minister himself.

"John Key: where is your conscience?" demanded the Labour Party leader Andrew Little, accusing Mr Key of being "morally wrong".

The Green Party echoed those comments.

"A simple stroke of the pen can immediately open the door to saving more lives, but our Prime Minister is being spineless, heartless and gutless," it said.

But Labour in particular can ill afford to be so pious.

It too was in power and - to steal a favourite line from National - for nine long years did nothing to increase the quota in response to similarly desperate situations.

A migrant boy holds a sign reading "SOS help me" as he sits with other migrants in front of the railway station in Budapest.

A migrant boy holds a sign reading "SOS help me" as he sits with other migrants in front of the railway station in Budapest. Photo: AFP

Labour MPs fondly recall the then Prime Minister Helen Clark accepting 131 Afghan refugees from the Tampa ship, conveniently glossing over the fact they were included within the 750 quota, not in addition to it.

Interesting too, to look at the media coverage, and the current outpouring of public concern, when millions of people have languished in refugee camps for several years.

Back in June, Radio New Zealand did an in-depth piece on refugees, noting then the Prime Minister was under pressure to increase the annual quota.

At that time, that story detailed the support of all parties except National for an increase to the annual quota, and while the story provoked a flurry of interest among those close to the issue, there was nowhere near the amount of coverage as at the moment.

That points to the influence of the wider media, which is now providing blanket coverage of the waves of people arriving into Europe.

In recent years, there has been a steady stream of stories about migrants and the often perilous conditions they face, as well as discussion about people paying illegal smugglers to transport them to other countries and the millions in camps awaiting the chance to find refuge elsewhere.

Migrants board a boat to the Greek island of Ko off the shore of Bodrum, southwest Turkey.

Migrants board a boat to the Greek island of Ko off the shore of Bodrum, southwest Turkey. Photo: AFP

But the media coverage has certainly intensified in past weeks, with the photo of the drowned toddler becoming a touchstone for the much broader issue, prompting debate in itself about how appropriate it is to use such images in the way many media have.

Back in New Zealand, the Prime Minister was not immune to the pressure such coverage creates, as evidenced by his change of heart as the week drew to a close, when he said he could not rule out some change to the current policy.

The one thing this Government is allergic to is being on the wrong side of public opinion, a place it has certainly found itself this week.

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