The Coalition is singing from Tony Abbott’s hymn sheet
Love him or loathe him, once again Tony Abbott seems to be succeeding in pushing the Turnbull government to go where he wants it to go, this time on cutting immigration. After Abbott’s initial intervention in February, last week Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton claimed that a government crackdown cut last year’s permanent migration intake to 162,400 – well below the planned level of 190,000. Yesterday backbencher Dean Smith proposed a parliamentary inquiry to facilitate a civilised debate as Australia’s population zooms past the 25 million mark next month. Today both Dutton and the PM have poured a bit of cold water on Smith’s idea, but they do say they’re happy to consider it. Abbott, meanwhile, makes hay by congratulating Smith while at the same time telling [$] 2GB that cutting immigration is an area of political advantage for the Coalition, because “the Labor Party is in the grip of, I suppose, ethnic activists in certain respects”. Abbott is not so much whistling at the dog as shouting at it, and of course making Smith’s civilised debate impossible even as he pats his backbench colleague on the head. In the middle of a do-or-die by-election campaign in the outer Brisbane seat of Longman, how does Labor respond?
To recap: Smith, who sponsored last year’s successful same-sex marriage bill to wide acclaim, told the ABC yesterday that moderation was the key to a sensible population debate: “We need to give ourselves some time to breathe, some time to pause and reflect, to make sure the [population] predictions are the best they can be and, if they’re not, let’s correct that … Population issues are broader than immigration issues. Wherever you go across the country you can see different sorts of population types of challenges. In regional communities you might see lack of population growth opportunities. In our biggest cities you can see some of the real challenges of congestion and infrastructure deficits, as some have called it.” Fair enough. Smith was citing this recent Lowy Institute poll, which found that for the first time, a majority of Australians (54%) oppose the current rate of immigration, up 14 points on last year.
Abbott also congratulated Dutton for his “modest” intake reduction in his regular spot on 2GB today, but wants it to go further: “We’ve got to bring [immigration] down pretty sharply if we are going to start getting the downward pressure off wages, if we are going to take the upward pressure off housing prices and if we are going to unclog our infrastructure – our public transport is full, our roads are blocked – and if we are going to take some of the pressure off integration, particularly in places like Melbourne.” This is code for the beat-up on “African gangs” that the Coalition hopes will carry them to victory in the November state election.
On the campaign trail in Mayo on Friday, Bill Shorten tried to shift the focus from permanent migration to temporary work visas: “Immigration numbers fluctuate depending on what’s happening in the economy, but why are the government always cover[ing] up the number of temporary visa holders in Australia with work rights? Under this government, under the Liberal government, I think it’s about 1.6 million people currently in Australia with temporary work rights due to the visas they have. The government never talks about this. This government is creating an underclass of low-paid workers from overseas; undercutting Australian jobs, undercutting the pay and conditions of Australians and indeed all too often, seeing the exploitation of foreign guest workers in Australia … That actually threatens and challenges the job security and the wages and conditions of everyday battling Aussies.”
And in Braddon today, responding to Smith’s call for an inquiry, Shorten was on the same theme: “I’ll talk to my colleagues and we’ll see what they say, but I do again just say to the government, why are you asleep at the wheel, Mr Turnbull, when it comes to the profusion and the explosion of the number of people with temporary work visas coming to Australia?”
If the Coalition is going to weaponise immigration (again), Labor will have to come to a landing on its own policy fast. The man in the hot seat is Labor’s shadow minister, Shayne Neumann, member for the Queensland seat of Blair, centred in Ipswich. Neumann has a relatively low profile – put on the spot, half a dozen journalists couldn’t name him in this skit on Tom Ballard’s Tonightly a few weeks back – and was busy today with hearings for the Joint Standing Committee on Migration in Sydney.
Neumann has previously slammed Abbott as a total “hypocrite” given immigration levels were higher when he was prime minister. Labor has consistently said that there are legitimate concerns about congestion, low wages and jobs growth, but has stopped short of nominating an ideal immigration number – the level is worked out during budget preparations, they say, and is therefore a matter for the government. Until Smith’s proposal goes beyond the hypothetical, there is not much for Labor to respond to.
All the indications are that the government is going to stick on this theme. Yesterday, Peter Dutton contradicted Treasurer Scott Morrison’s previous argument that higher migration was good for the budget, with Dutton claiming that the lower permanent intake would benefit the economy because it represented “more productive” migrants.
The government pooh-poohs Tony Abbott – on energy, on migration – then they do exactly what he wants.
since this morning
The rollout of Australia’s electronic health record system has been plagued by delays and technical faults, The Australian reports [$], but Health Minister Greg Hunt has declared that Australians need to stick with the system.
The inquest into the 2015 death of Aboriginal man David Dungay has been shown harrowing video footage of his final moments in Sydney’s Long Bay Prison, in which he yells “I can’t breathe” and starts spitting blood.
Aspiring ALP candidate Mary Delahunty, who is vying to replace Michael Danby, has blasted his decision to call a factional meeting to anoint a successor, warning it has “no resemblance to a democratic process”.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
In The Australian’s Newspoll today [$], the Coalition again trails Labor on a small and unchanged two-party margin of 51–49, but Malcolm Turnbull has extended his lead over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister by four points, blowing out the margin to 19 points.
In the AFR, Angus Grigg and Lisa Murray write [$] on the 40th anniversary of Beijing’s historic embrace of market economics by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. The Australian National University will this week publish a 700-page book, in which Ross Garnaut, economist and Australia’s former ambassador in Beijing, calls out the foreign
policy establishment for missing one of history’s big moments. “There was no contemporary recognition in the West of its significance,” he writes.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Love him or loathe him, once again Tony Abbott seems to be succeeding in pushing the Turnbull government to go where he wants it to go, this time on cutting immigration. After Abbott’s initial intervention in February, last week Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton claimed that a government crackdown cut last year’s permanent migration intake to 162,400 – well below the planned level of 190,000. Yesterday backbencher Dean Smith proposed a parliamentary inquiry to facilitate a civilised debate as Australia’s population zooms past the 25 million mark next month. Today both Dutton and the PM have poured a bit of cold water on Smith’s idea, but they do say they’re...