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Now the focus shifts to Labor

The Opposition faces a difficult choice on immigration

I wrote yesterday that I don’t think much of the government’s immigration plan. But let’s assume I’m wrong. Let’s look at it from the prime minister’s point of view.

Malcolm Turnbull has had the run of this week. There have been a couple of interventions from Tony Abbott, a soundbite here and there from Labor, but mostly it’s been about Turnbull and his new immigration plan.

Now, to repeat myself, I don’t think this immigration jaunt is either good policy or good politics. But it does seem clear now that Turnbull has chosen his strategy for the period ahead, and that it’s classically conservative: company tax cuts, culture wars on immigration. What’s more, he’s sticking to it. If we judge Turnbull on his own terms, his strategy is going fine. Credit where credit is due: the government has had us all talking about exactly what it wants.

Defining the topic of discussion is half the battle in politics.

If we continue to look at the world through Turnbull’s eyes (even if those eyes have, for the moment, been borrowed from Peter Dutton), it’s very possible he’s about to have another win. Because once the focus shifts from Turnbull, it will move to Labor – and things may get more interesting again.

Because what, exactly, does Labor do with this suite of policy? Some MPs of the Left have already dismissed Turnbull’s citizenship changes as “dog-whistling”. Senator Penny Wong has made it clear she thinks they’re unnecessary. But Bill Shorten is well aware of the political advantages offered by racial resentment, as made clear in his own crackdown on 457s (there was some similar criticism of aspects of his housing policy, announced today). And he’s been much more circumspect in his response to Turnbull: “I think it is reasonable to look for English-language proficiency, and I think that it’s reasonable to have some period of time, waiting time, before you become an Australian citizen.”

You would assume some compromise will be reached, where Labor will support some elements of the government’s plan and oppose others. But the discussion is interesting because it can’t be separated from the larger battle for the heart of the ALP, bubbling just underneath the surface, led by an increasingly outspoken Left faction.

This battle has been simmering for some time, and here’s where things get very interesting.

As Labor become more confident of victory – and they’d be bonkers not to be feeling at least optimistic – and the government more dispirited, the landscape changes in important ways. Which isn’t to say anyone should be measuring curtains, or resigning themselves quite yet. God knows predicting Australian politics is a mug’s game. And any assumptions will have been unsettled by this week’s events – as critical as I am of the chosen strategy, I also think the government has run a better political operation this week than we’ve seen in some time.

Sometimes, the sniff of triumph can serve to settle troops; to make sure everyone in the Opposition plays nicely, so as not to disturb momentum. That was certainly the case in the lead-up to the 2007 election.

But it can work the other way, too. With power in the offing, those who have been fighting for more action on inequality, or a revisiting of certain policies (on boats, say), may want to make their presence felt well before an Opposition leader is gifted the extraordinary authority of the prime ministerial mantle.

Such proximity to power can also act in different ways on Opposition leaders. They can decide to play politics all the way through, not wanting to sacrifice a skerrick of advantage. Or they can become suddenly mindful of the very different responsibilities of governing and avoid committing themselves to policies that are short-term-good, but long-term-disastrous.

Which brings me back to immigration. One of the policies foreshadowed by reports this week, but not announced, was the introduction of a provisional visa for migrants. This visa would be mandatory before being granted permanent residence and would restrict access to welfare.

According to a Fairfax report last year, leaked government advice suggested such changes “could undermine social cohesion, increase the risk of violent extremism and create a ‘two-tier society’”. This is a danger of the changes already announced, too. Writing in the Australian, David Crowe, while praising some changes, noted that other 457 adjustments risk creating a “permanent underclass” of “foreign workers who are worse than second-class citizens”. The less welcome we make migrants feel, the more likely we are to introduce genuine schisms into what has been, up till now, a relatively harmonious society.

A disaster like that – of the type we’ve seen in some parts of Europe – would destroy, not build, confidence in our immigration system. That wouldn’t happen in a term of government, of course. Such shifts would be felt over decades. Of the various achievements of the Turnbull government, this could well end up its most significant, and most damaging, legacy.

As Labor creeps closer to the possibility of government, it needs to consider such changes not from the perspective of neutralising any political advantage the current government might have, but in light of the time bombs they leave for future governments.  

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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