Chasing the xenophobic vote

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The Drum Unleashed 29th June, 2010

Tony Abbott must be feeling a little like Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu this week.

For the last 12 months, Baillieu has been trying to identify issues where the Coalition can make headway against John Brumby's government. More cops, abolishing suspended sentences, an anti-corruption commission - those sorts of things.

The Victorian government has responded by ostentatiously adopting those policies as its own.

Tony Abbott made population a key plank of the Liberal Party Federal Council this weekend, claiming an Abbott government would link population growth to infrastructure investment, and saying he would make sure "immigration does not out-strip environmental and economic sustainability." (It's in his "Action Contract", just above his signature, so you know he means it.)

So Julia Gillard's announcement that "Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population" may have taken a little wind out of Abbott's sails.

Like many other things in Australian politics these days, one reason we are now debating population is because Kevin Rudd got overexcited. For many people, Rudd's noble but politically inept claim last October that he believed in big Australia and "makes no apology for that" was a helpful reminder that Australia's politicians rarely take the train to work.

With his October speech, Rudd managed to take personal responsibility for decades of state government failure to invest in transport infrastructure, and personal responsibility for the refusal of those governments to release more land for housing.

Remember when Rudd was described as a political genius?

Abbott capitalised on this when he won the Liberal Party leadership. Rudd had to back away from defending population growth.

But now the primary reason the two parties are talking population is because of asylum seekers. Under Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party was losing votes on all sides.

On the left, Rudd's ban on refugee claims from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka was pushing voters to the Greens. On the right, the ALP was losing votes every time a new boat full of refugees arrived.

Getting tough on "population" pleases both these camps.

Green voters seem to love the word "sustainable". It's like tomato sauce: everything tastes better with sustainable on it.

Having a sustainable population implies asylum seekers can come to Australia, but no-one else. You may flee your third world country to Australia if there's a war on, but not if you're starving. That, after all, would be bad for the environment.

Yet on Twitter yesterday, the now Minister for Sustainable Population Tony Burke said "This is the first time I've heard any commentators describe talking about environmental sustainability as a 'lurch to the right'." He is being stunningly disingenuous.

A quarter of Australians think asylum seekers make up 25 per cent or more of Australia's total migration intake, according to an Essential Report poll earlier this month. The real figure is less than one per cent.

Those Australians must believe every new boat person is another seat on the train they miss out on. Or another bidder at suburban house auctions. Refugees apparently have deep pockets.

But the Labor government has been losing votes to the Greens, so directly going after asylum seekers, Liberal-style, would only add to the government's electoral problems.

So population has to be the proxy. Just because it's badged as "sustainable" population, doesn't mean the government is only thinking about plants and water and clean air and koalas. Gillard isn't talking about salinity levels in the Murray Darling Basin when she talks about making sure Australia gets the "right kind of migrants".

Of course, the Coalition lacks even that subtlety.

In his Federal Council speech on Sunday, Tony Abbott claimed population growth should be tamed because it is putting pressure on infrastructure. But at the same time, he claims his paid parental leave scheme will be "good for our economy because it will increase population."

In other words: grow local.

(Tony Burke might notice the opposition also uses the phrase "sustainable population", although no doubt he would be comfortable casting the Coalition's policy as right-leaning.)

Obviously, in population, Tony Abbott found a powerful message which resonates with voters the ALP would like to retain. Gillard used to work as John Brumby's chief of staff. Like her former boss, she has no reluctance simply copying her opponent's policies.

Abbott and Gillard can dress it up all they want. They can talk about infrastructure and the environment, about the hard decisions, about their deep personal desire for migrants to find new lives in Australia, and about how their own parents brought them to this country.

But it's all pretty transparent. With population, both the Labor government and the opposition are now trying to chase the xenophobic vote.