The problem with inventing words or phrases is that the clever ones soon become cliches. This seems to be the likely fate of the term “virtue-signalling”, which appears to have been coined by James Bartholomew in The Spectator in April 2015. He defined virtue-signalling as an act “that does not require actually doing anything virtuous”. He maintains that it “does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children; it takes no effort or sacrifice at all”.
I was reminded of this when, last Wednesday, The Australian Financial Review ran a large photo of Cate Blanchett with a story that she was recognised at the World Economic Forum for her work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. You see, as part of Blanchett’s role as an UNHCR goodwill ambassador, she recently travelled to Lebanon and Jordan and spoke with Syrians who have been displaced by the civil war in their country of birth.
All very virtuous, to be sure. But such attempts at what is called awareness-raising are not likely to improve the livelihood of displaced persons in the immediate term. So what could Blanchett do to improve the wellness of refugees from the Middle East and Africa? For starters, she might think of providing some temporary accommodation for some of those who make it to the West.
A couple of years ago, Blanchett bought the Highwell House mansion in East Sussex. It has seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms and five reception rooms. Plenty of space for a virtuous family to share with at least some of the single male Middle Eastern and African asylum-seekers living in Britain. However, it appears the Blanchett abode was not turned into a share house for displaced persons.
In Australia, and elsewhere, many families have provided a room or rooms for refugees over recent decades, my late mother-in-law included. That’s how many Indochinese refugees got started in Australia in the late 1970s and 1980s. It’s just that those who do acts that require some sacrifice rarely talk about it. Whereas celebrities who confine their actions to advocacy tend to be showered with praise, along with the occasional high-profile gong.
It’s much the same with nation states. Last November New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country did not regard the plight of refugees, asylum-seekers and other detainees on Manus Island and Nauru “as acceptable”.
This was a clear criticism of the Australian government. Ardern repeated NZ’s offer to take 150 of the Manus Island detainees.
This sounds very virtuous. Over the ditch, there is a generous, young, female, left-of-centre Prime Minister. Meanwhile Malcolm Turnbull is channelling the hardline policy of his Coalition predecessors John Howard and Tony Abbott, which is being implemented by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
The NZ Prime Minister’s gesture disguises one central fact: her country is not as generous to asylum-seekers as Australia — and never has been.
Australia’s population is close to 25 million and NZ’s population is close to five million. Under its refugee and humanitarian program, Australia accepts 13,750 persons each year. NZ’s customary annual refugee intake is 750.
For NZ to be as generous on refugees as Australia on a per capita basis, it would need to accept many more refugees .
It’s much the same with the response of both nations to the civil war in Syria. The Abbott government committed Australia to provide an extra 12,000 places for individuals displaced by the conflict. This policy has been continued by the Turnbull government. In 2015-16, about 3790 visas were granted under this program. Australia’s decision to accept 12,000 Syrians is in addition to the 13,750 regular places each year.
Not so in NZ. In 2015 the National government, headed by Bill English, decided to accept 750 Syrian refugees — only 600 of whom were by way of a special emergency intake above its annual quota of 750. Ardern has continued this policy.
Once again, the response of Australia to those displaced by the Syrian civil war has been far more generous than that of NZ. Obviously, NZ is entitled to adopt a policy with respect to refugees that is significantly less generous than that of Australia. But the likes of Ardern are not entitled to lecture Australia about virtue, morality, generosity and all that.
Australia’s disinclination to take up NZ’s offer to accept 150 of the Manus Island detainees is understandable. Since the two nations have an effective open border with respect to their citizens, anyone who is accepted by New Zealand is entitled to enter Australia in due course.
Australia has just recovered from a time when criminal people smugglers played a key role in the nation’s immigration intake, which also saw more than 1000 children, women and men drowning at sea.
Any suggestion that asylum-seekers can find their way to Australia via NZ will encourage people smugglers to revamp their deadly business. There is evidence of people smugglers putting boats back into the water with the claim that a journey to NZ will lead eventually to residence in Australia.
Ardern may not like to admit it but NZ benefits from Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders with respect to its own border security — just as NZ, which spends 1 per cent of gross domestic product on defence, benefits from the actions of the Australian Defence Force in providing security in the South Pacific. Australia spends 2 per cent of GDP on defence — New Zealand gets its national security on the cheap.
Its virtue on such matters as refugees and peace is made possible by the fact that Australia takes the necessary hard-headed actions from which it benefits.