John Menadue. Our humanitarian program.

Some issues have no place in partisan politics, they may be topics that are politically charged, but they are not ideological battlegrounds – they are about the personal and the human. Our stance on refugees and on protection is such an issue. It is an area that has been supported by the left and the right, and in darker moments, disowned by both. It is an issue that is deeply tied to our national psyche and yet heavily influenced by the words of our national leaders. Our treatment of refugees has revealed the best in us and defined some of our worst moments. Of late, it has come to be our Achilles heel, damaging our international reputation and corroding our national debates. But the voices of our better angels may again be gaining strength.

In the past weeks we have seen some of Australia’s most influential business leaders speak out in support of increasing our humanitarian program. Tony Shepherd, the immediate past president of the Business Council of Australia and Chairman of the Commission of Audit has become a vocal advocate for an increased intake and has called for businesses to get behind the settlement process and provide jobs for refugees. He has been joined by Innes Willox, the head of the Australian Industry Group who wrote eloquently on the plight of Syrian refugees and our need to do more. Both men were part of a UNHCR led business delegation that recently travelled to Turkey and Lebanon to see the unfolding humanitarian crisis first hand. Both have reflected on their experience of the human side of refugee movements, of the families they met and the conversations that will linger.

The business community should be commended for stepping up. Not only because it is morally right, but also because it is strategically important. In a world where the movement of people has become one of the greatest international challenges of our time, our policies have ramifications beyond the daily grind of domestic politics. Nations that show courage and pull their weight will be seen a global leaders in the decades to come. How we are perceived around the world matters, in trade, in investment and in our appeal as a destination for business, for tourism and for migration.

Perhaps even more importantly, it goes to our morale. An outwardly looking country, confident in our capacity for generosity is a happier and more productive nation. Business long ago understood the intimate connection between outreach and personal drive. All our big companies have in place strong community engagement and corporate social responsibility programs offering staff the chance to mentor disadvantaged youth or engage with community projects. At a national level, our humanitarian program is as much for us as it an act of charity. It refreshes our values and charges the national soul. Offering protection gives us purpose and reminds us of our privileged position.

As a nation our better side has shone through when the community has owned this issue and when a broader leadership has become vocal. Whether it is the reaction of Brian Owler, the Australian Medical Association’s president, to the possibility of the removal of baby Asha or the force of community discontent over the prospect of one child suffering, the tide might be turning. Willox and Shepherd are an important addition to the chorus, their voices come from a new quarter and from one that has the ear of Government.

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