Tracey Barnett: The issue that four ex-prime ministers agree on

31 Jul, 2017

Ex-Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Helen Clark are calling for politicians from all parties to welcome 500 more refugees immediately. Photo / File

By Tracey Barnett

When four ex-Prime Ministers were asked if New Zealand should welcome 500 more refugees now, this is what threw me – not one of them hesitated. There was no let’s-take-care-of-our-own-first, no diving into cost, or security.

There was only this: Yes. We should.

One by one, they picked up the pen to sign the same letter. This was from four very different former prime ministers, from different parties, different eras, with divergently distinguished paths after their 9th floor tenures. I guessed that even the letter’s wording would be some kind of erudite tussle. I was wrong.

There was our 33rd Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who still feels like the quintessential legal scholar about to step on to the judge’s bench when he walks through the door.

Mike Moore, our 34th Prime Minister, whose worldliness as the former Director of the World Trade Organisation and US Ambassador was quietly offset by his proud working man’s perspective.

Jim Bolger, our 35th Prime Minister, also a former US Ambassador and now University Chancellor who still commands a room like the consummate helmsmen.

Finally, Helen Clark, our 37th Prime Minister, whose tenure in the number three spot at the United Nations made her take on refugees feel particularly salient right now.

They had one thing in common. Time and distance has been a powerful clarifier.

Jim Bolger didn’t mince words.

“There are no rational arguments against us being more generous. None at all. We can do it. We can afford it. And we can offer that hand of welcome and friendship.

“We are talking about one of the great humanitarian crises of our time and I know that New Zealanders will want to help solve that,” said Bolger, former National Party Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

Former Labour Prime Minister, Mike Moore said a couple of thousand of refugees

Former Labour Prime Minister, Mike Moore said a couple of thousand of refugees “won’t hurt us”. Photo / Paul Estcourt

What do you say to those who don’t want to take more refugees?

“Just relax,” Bolger said, “show a little generosity and humanity for those who are suffering.”

Generosity. It was the one word repeated in each of the four interviews. Each time, the term was used in a larger context than money. This was about generosity of spirit, the collective will to do the right thing.

Are we contributing fairly? With our refugee quota at 750 refugees (1000 as of 2018), New Zealand just dropped to 121st lowest in the world for the total number of refugees and asylum seekers we host, measured by our GDP. If welcoming refugees was just about cost, how do we rationalise there are potentially 120 nations who are less wealthy than we are who do more?

Compassion is a strange animal. When the call goes out to take care of own first, we forget that we do that-roughly 99 per cent of the time. Less than 1 per cent of our budget goes to international aid, even if you add refugees into that number. If our domestic policies to help our neediest are failing Kiwis – yes, it’s vital we do better. But be careful not to unintentionally punish our newest Kiwi refugees too, roughly 40 per cent of whom are children.

If you have to put a price tag on the tiny portion of our budget that goes to doing good in this world, research shows that refugees pay us forward too. Studies in Europe show that for one Euro spent on refugees, the host country will reap two Euros five years on. John Key is the child of a refugee, Nicky Hager is too. So was the Jewish baker who brought us Vogel’s bread. Refugees enrich the fabric of who we are, not just economically in the long term.

In the stoushes that await us this election season, refugees have already gotten mistakenly swept up in the issue of immigrants, an entirely different category. Having 73,000 immigrants come here annually by choice is an economic issue. Accepting just 500 more refugees through a strongly vetted UNHCR system is a humanitarian issue.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer said New Zealand's refugee in-take has fallen behind and is not acceptable. Photo / NZPA

Sir Geoffrey Palmer said New Zealand’s refugee in-take has fallen behind and is not acceptable. Photo / NZPA

Are 500 refugees enough? No, not by a long shot. But it is a modest, obtainable start. It will be several years before we review our annual quota, a luxury of time desperate lives don’t have.

If we really are the compassionate people we believe ourselves to be, start now. Extend your hand to a camera with the words #500Now written in a whiteboard marker on your palm, then send it to our current Prime Minister and your MP. Stand up at a candidate forum and ask each candidate – no matter what party – “Will you publicly commit to taking 500 more refugees now?”

These four of our most respected statesmen and women didn’t hesitate.

Mike Moore offered some honesty too.

“The fact that all these ex-prime ministers came out with this is a sign that there’s an underlying guilt amongst us that we haven’t done enough. We are guilty. We haven’t done our job. It won’t hurt us. A couple of thousand of refugees – give me a break.”

Helen Clark

37th Prime Minister of New Zealand

Helen Clark, the former head of the United Nations Development programme, is one of four former New Zealand Prime Ministers to jointly call for the government to accept 500 more refugees immediately, as part of a new initiative “Welcome #500Now”.

“Another 500 refugees would be do-able. The government would have to budget the money for it. The NGO community and host communities who support resettlement would need to gear up, but its do-able within the resources we have.

“We want to be seen as a good-hearted country. Not a soft-hearted country, but a good-hearted country that wants to pull its weight. And the pride and self-esteem that comes from that is also a positive,” said Clark.

Clark said the big change since she was Prime Minister is the scale of the refugee challenge.

“The High Commission for refugees is very, very stretched. This is 2017, with 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, a greater number than at the end of WWII.”

Jim Bolger

35th Prime Minister of New Zealand

Jim Bolger says there are “no rational arguments against us being more generous. None at all. We can do it. We can afford it. And we can offer that hand of welcome and friendship.

“We are talking about one of the great humanitarian crises of our time and I know that New Zealanders will want to help solve that,” said former National Party Prime Minister Bolger, currently the Chancellor of Waikato University.

“You can’t become tired of our common humanity. They are part of us. We all deserve the possibility of some kind of satisfying life.”

When asked what to say to those who do not want to take more refugees in New Zealand, Bolger replied, “Just relax. Show a little generosity and humanity for those who are suffering.”

Mike Moore

34th Prime Minister of New Zealand

Former Prime Minister Mike Moore says that the joint call among four former Prime Ministers to accept 500 more refugees now might also be a sign they should have done more in their respective tenures.

“The fact that all these ex-Prime Ministers have come out for this is a sign that there’s an underlying guilt amongst us that we haven’t done enough. We are guilty. We haven’t done our job. It won’t hurt us. A couple of thousand refugees. Give me a break,” said Moore.

Moore felt that our world ranking as 95th for the total number of refugees and asylum seekers we host per capita was shameful.

“Shame on us. We basically think we’re better than we are. But we’re not.

“One of the great joys of my life was being Labour Leader and people coming up in Wellington and saying, ‘I’m one of Peter Fraser’s babies. That is fabulous,” Moore said.

“We should welcome 500 now. They’d be fantastic New Zealanders,” Moore said.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

33rd Prime Minister of New Zealand

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said New Zealand’s refugee intake has fallen behind and is not acceptable.

“When all is considered, the New Zealand government’s reluctance to carry its full weight of responsibility in this area of humanitarian relief is really not acceptable,” said Sir Geoffrey.

He said New Zealand’s increase should be far greater than 500.

“‘This has to be somewhat bold. I think if we are taking 1000 now, we should take 2000. If you’re going to increase it, you should resource it, and go for it.

“We have an obligation to have a heart, to obey human rights-which we all enjoy and they don’t. And it’s really important for New Zealand to show that it’s going to do its bit as a good international citizen.”

Tracey Barnett is a columnist and initiated “Welcome #500Now”. Learn more onFacebook at WagePeaceNZ

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