Editorial: Lending a helping, but uneven, hand

Last updated 05:00 12/02/2013

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OPINION: John Key is eager to "help out an Aussie mate" by agreeing to take 150 of Australia's refugees a year.

This has caused a good deal of a ruckus, partly because Australia's attitude to boat people is not widely admired in the world.

But the real objection to Mr Key's policy is that it allows a fortunate minority to jump the queue.

And this means that 150 other refugees, typically rotting in wretched camps near some of the ghastliest places on earth, will not be able to come to New Zealand.

Their places will be taken by those who were lucky enough to have become the responsibility of Australia. This isn't really fair. Australia's rejected refugees are not necessarily more deserving than the 150 who will miss out.

A more compassionate approach would have been simply to increase the overall refugee quota by 150, bringing it to 900.

Then no-one could have complained, and indeed John Key could claim to have lessened the misery faced by the wretched of the earth while at the same time helping out his Aussie mate.

No doubt Mr Key would argue that New Zealand is already doing its bit by accepting the 750 stipulated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But by accepting the 150, New Zealand is encouraging queue-jumping, something that Mr Key has previously criticised. The prime minister has repeatedly warned that sooner or later a boatload of refugees would make it to New Zealand.

This seems unlikely. The distance from Indonesia is enormous, the winds and the tides dangerous, the risks great.

The people smugglers who run this appalling trade in human misery are unlikely to make a serious attempt to reach these shores. Perhaps one boatload might one day make it through. This would be an exceptional event.

Mr Key argues that taking the refugees is a quid pro quo for the refugee intelligence that Australia shares with us.

Somehow he thinks that we owe the Aussies for heading off the refugees before they get here, as though they are doing it for that reason rather than for their own pressing domestic political imperatives.

It seems more likely that Mr Key is lending a hand for much the same reason Helen Clark helped out the then-Australian prime minister John Howard over exactly the same issue a decade ago. New Zealand is the smaller partner in the Anzac relationship.

It is the younger sibling in constant danger of being ignored by the older, bigger one. Julia Gillard, unlike her predecessor Kevin Rudd, has visited New Zealand and remained apparently sympathetic to its concerns.

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John Key wants that to continue. Hence the helping hand over refugees. Hence the decision not to push too hard over Kiwis' access to the dole and other welfare benefits in Australia. As Mr Key says, "we need them more than they need us".

Refugees are just one of the tokens in play between Australia and New Zealand. It's a shame, though, that realpolitik has caused an injustice to refugees themselves, a group of people with no say at the diplomatic table.

- The Dominion Post

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