Peter Dutton earned the ire of Labor, the Greens and advocates for claiming “illiterate and innumerate” refugees would swamp welfare queues and take the jobs of locals if the annual humanitarian intake was substantially increased.
Labor leader Bill Shorten accused Dutton of insulting the great migrant history of Australia, pointing to the enormous contribution of refugees such as heart surgeon Victor Chang and businessmen Frank Lowy and Richard Pratt.
They were comments that Pauline Hanson would have been proud to make, Shorten said.
Labor has pledged to nearly double the annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 while the Greens want it raised to 50,000. The coalition supports an increase from 13,750 now to 18,750 by 2018-19.
After earlier failing to address Dutton’s comments, Turnbull brushed aside calls for his head, praising him as an outstanding minister and noting there had been no successful people-smuggling operations in 600 days.
He acknowledged many refugees came from shattered parts of the world, some had no English skills and were illiterate in their own language through no fault of their own.
“Our immigration program is built on a pillar of compassion which means that we take the refugees and their needs seriously and we invest in them,” Turnbull told reporters in Townsville, noting the annual cost of settlement services was $800 million.
That was why Australia was the most successful multicultural society in the world.
“Many countries allow refugees in and then forget about them. We don’t,” he said.
The Greens called on Turnbull to sack the minister, accusing him of making xenophobic comments.
“They are not just an attack on refugees, they’re an attack on families right around the country – families like mine,” leader Richard Di Natale told reporters, reflecting on his Italian heritage.
Last week, government backbencher George Christensen declared he didn’t want any of the 12,000 Syrians coming to Australia as part of a special intake resettled in his Queensland regional electorate because they would increase competition for local jobs.
But other rural areas are lining up with welcome mats keen for an economic stimulus and to fill worker shortages in agriculture and meat processing.
NSW regional councils such as Wagga Wagga, Albury, Coffs Harbour, Wollongong and Newcastle are among those offering to resettle refugee families.
A study last year found resettlement of 170 Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) in the rural Victoria town of Nhill had created 70 jobs and added $40 million to the struggling community’s economy.
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