January 23, 2015 | smh
Premier Mike Baird has called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to “do more” to accept refugees, saying Australia’s economic strength means nothing unless we help the world’s vulnerable.
Mr Baird’s critique of Coalition refugee policy came as Fairfax Media established Mr Abbott has been quietly ringing backbenchers since the start of the year as he manages growing anxiety over his government’s performance.
NSW stands ready … to take more than our fair share.
Premier Mike Baird
Speaking at an Australia Day Council of NSW lunch on Friday, Mr Baird said Australia was the lucky country, and should “open our arms to those around the world who are much less fortunate than us”.
Mr Baird, a committed Christian, congratulated Mr Abbott on recently increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake for refugees, but said he should “do more”.
“[There are people] in incredibly difficult circumstances with nowhere to turn,” Mr Baird said.
Under the former federal Labor government, the humanitarian program was set at 20,000 places, however the Abbott government dropped this to 13,750 places in 2013-14.
In December the government pledged to increase the annual humanitarian intake to 18,750 over the next four years.
The federal government has also attracted the ire of refugee advocates with its controversial “stop the boats” policy of offshore detention for any arrivals by boat people.
Federal Labor’s acting immigration spokesman Matt Thistlethwaite seized on the comments, saying it was clear the Abbott government had “turned its back on refugees”.
Fairfax Media has learned Mr Abbott’s calls have been made to selected backbenchers seen as influential in the party room or whose judgment Mr Abbott respects.
Two of those involved said the talks had been both free-ranging and constructive with the Prime Minister eager to hear the unvarnished truth about voter and party-room sentiment.
The revelation comes as discontent tending towards outright anger simmers within the Liberal party room over what many MPs see as government bungling and political mismanagement.
More than 20 MPs have confirmed privately that they harbour grave concerns over their government’s botched handling of Medicare reform, higher education changes, and over unscripted “kite flying” exercises such as talk of changes to the politically toxic, goods and services tax.
“These announcements come and go with no warning and no instruction or explanation to the backbench as to how to explain them to voters,” complained one marginal seat MP.
But a source close to Mr Abbott denied the calls were an attempt to shore-up flagging support, insisting they were for information-gathering purposes and had always been part of Mr Abbott’s plan for wider prime ministerial consultation in 2015.
The insider said the Prime Minister had flagged a “reset at the end of 2014” which would inevitably involve a broader advisory structure than had been the case last year and that he planned to use the feedback to inform his political strategy to be outlined at the National Press Club in just over a week.
Mr Abbott offered a sharper defence of his leadership and of government policy on Sydney’s 2GB radio on Friday, name-checking four ministers as stand-out performers but conspicuously leaving out his top economic minister, Treasurer Joe Hockey.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work of my ministers, all of them, whether it be Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull or Andrew Robb, I’m very proud of all of them,” he told 2GB’s Ben Fordham.
He said he could always do better but criticism was exaggerated.
“We haven’t jeopardised our relationship with our neighbours, we haven’t put people at risk in leaky boats on open seas, our main fault is that we haven’t been able to get legislation past the opposition-dominated Senate,” he said.
“Maybe if I’d had more dinners with the cross-benchers, maybe if I’d spoken more sweetly to Bill Shorten, this would’ve been different but in the end, this country does have to live within its means.”
Mr Baird said Australia was part of a global community and “as a lucky country we have a responsibility to play in helping others as part of that community”.
“NSW stands ready … to take more than our fair share. Yes, we have strength in our finances but my strong sense is that means nothing, unless we offer help to those who are vulnerable amongst us.”
Mr Baird’s father, Bruce, was a former federal Liberal MP who objected to the Howard government’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Mr Baird snr is now chair of the Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council, which advises the federal government on refugee and humanitarian settlement in Australia.
Refugee Council of Australia spokeswoman Lucy Morgan welcomed Mr Baird’s call.
“In the current global context, it’s really imperative that countries like Australia start stepping up and providing more places to people fleeing persecution,” she said.
“We are really at a point now, internationally, where needs are multiplying and there is a need for a more targeted and comprehensive response from countries like Australia, which are not at the front line of these crises and are not yet doing the heavy lifting.”
Mr Abbott’s office did not respond to request for comment.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government was “strongly committed to a well-managed humanitarian programme and Australia remains one of the top three refugee resettlement countries in the world”.