Congratulations, New Zealand. It's official; we look like mean-spirited, isolationist chickens on the world stage. Strike that. Maybe with the announcement of our blithely miniscule new refugee quota this week, we've now proved it.

What is our government's big, fat moral response to the worst refugee crisis since WWII? Pretend. Raise the quota the very smallest number possible without looking like a typo, dress it like a dead turkey in a Richard Simmons leotard and truss it up as our new commitment to - what, dead poultry? Might as well be. Because there was no human imperative anywhere near our government's crosshairs with this announcement.

After waiting almost three decades, after endorsements from every other political party, all of the nation's major newspapers, religious groups across many faiths, even entire communities holding up their hand to say 'bring them here', this Government has announced it will take - turkey drumstick roll please - 250 more refugees annually.

This, despite a shiny, new, bigger capacity refugee resettlement centre opening in Mangere this week. This, despite the Red Cross saying we can take more.


Then, to add a grand hat tip to the concept that there is absolutely no rush when human lives are at stake, the blink-and-you-missed-it increase won't start until 2018. What's a few more years watching more children dying in Aleppo or drowning on their way to Lampedusa? As long as they don't start washing up in Wellington harbour, we're sweet.

We waited an entire generation - for this? It's like we're about to hand in our homework thirty-one years late and tout our D+ effort with first class honours. Do we congratulate ourselves on having the 94th smallest refugee and asylum in-take in the world per capita? Will we live in hope that no one notices there are now 114 nations poorer than New Zealand who still find a way to do more than we do?

Apparently, walking the talk is highly overrated. Our Government must be fairly confident no world leaders will trawl through our Prime Minister's old video remarks in front of the Security Council where he spoke about the world doing more for refugees. Canada heard him. They're taking 27,000 Syrians alone. Australia heard him. They've added another 12,000 Syrians to their in-take. Even countries with a similar population size to ours heard him. Ireland is taking 4,000 more refugees. Finland 8,000. That's countries about our size taking x4 to x8 times more than what we've barely lifted a finger to do after three decades - that is, when our 'increase' of 250 souls finally kicks in another two years from now.

Our Prime Minister looked straight down the barrel of news cameras this week and said that New Zealand takes our humanitarian commitment 'seriously'. 'Seriously' is to add another zero to that number. 'Seriously' is to carve out even 1/1000th of the $20 billion this Government is happy to shell out on the military and put it where results are so easily measurable, by saving and transforming the lives of the victims of those same wars, simply by offering to share our peace.

It's easy enough to throw us off track from simply doing the right thing. Just spend a bit of effort conflating issues that shouldn't be entangled. Immigrants are an economic issue, whereas refugees are clearly a humanitarian one. Keep those two discussions separate.

Or, use one of the oldest tricks in the book by pitting two vulnerable categories against each other for housing. Instead, recognise that this government can choose to stop selling off our state housing and fund each sector properly, making it a priority for all those in need, instead of flag referendums.

Should governments take care of their own first? Absolutely. But because no nation lives in a vacuum, every government will always delineate a small amount for international initiatives. We are no exception. If you analyse how to carve up that specific slice of the pie, ask yourself, what would you rather see your internationally targeted tax dollar do? Spend $20 billion dollars on military hardware or take even a tiny fraction of that money to create a real Schindler's list we can be proud of.

We couldn't do less by pretending to do more, if we tried.

Good luck figuring out how to spin not looking like myopic isolationists at the bottom of the world. Come election time there's a refrain you can bet the entire frigate budget we'll hear loud and clear, this administration 'raised' the quota. Just don't read the fine print.

Sadly, this short-sighted decision will damage our international reputation long-term too. Our actions this week demonstrate what no one will say out loud; we are not the humanitarian country we like to believe ourselves to be on the world stage. Our government has just found a politically digestible way not to give a toss.

Tracey Barnett is a columnist and founder of WagePeaceNZ, an initiative to keep NZ up to date on refugee and asylum issues.