If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister next year, he is going to have to make a decision: what to do about immigration?
Not asylum seekers: immigration.
After all, the size and composition of the total immigration intake is certain to shape our nation much more than the few thousand people who arrive by boat.
While the parties shout themselves hoarse over refugees, we’re at a unique juncture in immigration politics.
For the past 70 years, the party that has most embraced permanent migration in government has been the Liberal Party, not Labor.
Permanent and long-term arrival numbers vary every year; and not all of those variations are driven by Commonwealth government policy. But most are.
(For those interested in playing along, the Immigration Department offers a spreadsheet of historical migration numbers since 1945 here.)
The largest declines in our migration intake have occurred under Labor governments.
When Gough Whitlam, that darling of the progressive movement, came into power, immigration plummeted. In 1970, the Liberal government of John Gorton had admitted 185,000 migrants. The Whitlam government shrunk that to just over 50,000.
This was a deliberate policy decision. Whitlam even shut down the Department of Immigration, placing migration under the Department of Labour and Immigration.
That might seem a minor institutional change but it wasn’t: when merged with labour, immigration policy came under the influence of a traditionally pro-union bureaucracy. And unions don’t like it when the government imports foreign workers.
There’s long been a debate about whether it was Whitlam who ended the White Australia Policy or Harold Holt. Both did their part. But even though Whitlam proclaimed the end to the infamous policy, the sharp decline of total immigration on his watch meant that few non-European migrants could come to Australia regardless.
In March 1974 The Age pondered whether Gough Whitlam was doing as every government had done: “preaching tolerance while still practicing discrimination”.
Bob Hawke described himself as a “high immigration man”. But when he took government in 1983, the immigration intake dropped by more than a third. To Hawke’s credit, migration crept up over the next decade. But when Paul Keating took over, it plummeted again.
The Liberals have a much more impressive record.
Post-war immigration was at its peak under John Gorton. And Malcolm Fraser reversed the Whitlam backslide.
Under John Howard – that bête noire of pro-migration progressives – immigration jumped up well above the Gorton heights. In 2007, the number of permanent migrants arriving on our shores hit 191,000 – the largest cohort since the Second World War.
As George Megalogenis wrote in The Howard Factor, the real story was how “the former Hansonite belt … think Howard is keeping out all the foreigners, when he is bringing them here at a rate Paul Keating never contemplated”.
Yet Howard’s record-breaking immigration intake is apparently an awkward truth. In the standard text on this subject, From White Australia to Woomera: the Story of Australian Immigration, the academic James Jupp briefly acknowledges the Howard record – in one sentence. But the real issue for Jupp is that Howard was considering a temporary guest worker scheme, and such a scheme would hurt unions already battered by WorkChoices.
But then came the Rudd government, and the partisan pattern broke. Rather than immediately shrinking the intake, Rudd continued the trend upwards – hugely. More than 224,000 migrants entered Australia in 2010. And that terrifying guest worker scheme? A pilot program was eventually introduced not by the union-hating Liberal Party, but by the ALP.
Even Julia Gillard’s government – she of small Australia fame – has not appreciably reduced the number of migrants we take.
Given the showy anti-population rhetoric of the 2010 election, it is remarkable that we’re taking nearly twice as many foreigners than we did under the government of Bob “high immigration” Hawke.
There’s one obvious lesson here. Don’t trust what politicians say about immigration.
But when Rudd broke the pattern, he also broke the Liberal Party’s cover. After Labor prime ministers had lowered the intake, Liberal prime ministers were free to raise it; they gained no political benefit from doing otherwise. The Coalition could bang on about multiculturalism and refugees, but it would still bring in many more people than Labor.
Thanks to Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott faces different incentives to his predecessors. And the 2010 election demonstrated the Coalition’s willingness to play the anti-population card.
So there is perhaps an added significance to the Abbott’s announcement last week that he would reduce the Gillard government’s refugee intake by 6,000 places.
It’s one thing to call for temporary protection visas and off-shore processing. It’s another thing to actually reduce the refugee intake. His announcement was reported through the standard stop-the-boats prism but it hints at something deeper: the Coalition may sense an opportunity to rehash the 2010 themes in 2013.
Abbott has previously said that he would like to make skilled migration – that is, 457 working visas – the mainstay of a Coalition’s immigration program. But he has framed it in a peculiar way. Businesses should be able to bring in workers, “provided there aren’t Australians who could readily fill particular jobs”.
This sees immigration as a mechanism to solve problems, not way of building Australian economic strength in and of itself. And remember, 457 visas are temporary visas – not permanent ones.
Admittedly, this is like reading tea leaves. History cautions us to not take anything politicians say too seriously. The real story of immigration is only ever found in statistical appendices.
But should Abbott win government next year, immigration will be a major question for his new government.
Does he want to continue the Liberal legacy – a legacy of mass migration and population growth? Or, as he has at times unfortunately suggested, does he want to repudiate it?