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No slaying the immigration debate hydra

By Zareh Ghazarian - posted Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Recent comments by the Immigration Minister Chris Evans suggest that, as in 2001, the issue of asylum seekers will play a significant part in the federal election. In his view, the debate has been “killing the government”. His assessment is spot-on. But this is a debate that can be poisonous to both major parties as it has many competing and conflicting demands.

The asylum seeker debate is far more complex in 2010 than it was in 2001. Back then, the world was reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. In that climate Prime Minister John Howard tied in notions of potential terrorists slipping into Australia posing as asylum seekers. In turning away those who were labelled as “illegal immigrants”, the Coalition was seen to be strong on border security. More importantly, public opinion firmly supported the government’s position. In an attempt to mitigate the Coalition’s rising levels of support on this issue, Labor also supported the government’s policies at the time.

Upon becoming prime minister, Julia Gillard has tried to fashion herself as a “can do” PM, tying up the loose policy ends to ensure the government can choose the issues it fights the election on. In trying to resolve the asylum seeker issue she has proposed a version of the Howard government’s much maligned “Pacific Solution”.


Notwithstanding the unresolved questions about where asylum seekers would actually be detained or processed, Gillards’ approach has sought to quell the rising levels of dissatisfaction from voters in marginal seats which have the power to decide whether her government is returned at the next election. In trying to attract the same pocket of voters, Tony Abbott has vowed to reintroduce the “successful” border protection policies of the Howard years.

In 2010, however, there’s more to the debate than terrorism and it seems that the issue of asylum seekers has been absorbed into the broader migration debate.

One of the most interesting dynamics over the last decade has been the clear attempt at increasing Australia’s population through various policies. Even during the period of the Howard government, the Department of Treasury highlighted the economic and social problems Australia faced if it were to have an ageing population. In response various policies were implemented to facilitate the migration of workers as well as boosting Australia’s fertility rate.

On the one hand, the government recognises the importance of increasing the population. But on the other hand, the major parties recognise the need to appeal to an electorally significant section of the community that supports restricted levels of immigration and only then would support those entering Australia through established legal means.

The recent announcement by the Water Services Association of Australia highlights the problems Australia faces with an increasing population with water potentially becoming scarcer and more expensive. Such a thought does not bode well with many voters who are already concerned about rising utility prices and water restrictions.

The perceived strain a larger population would place on infrastructure such as roads and public transport also appears to play a part in some voters being less welcoming of a large population.


The issue of rising house prices and the limited supply of land underscores the need for a more holistic approach to dealing with Australia’s population. Such sentiments resonate even stronger for those who are struggling to buy their first home, generally located in marginal outer metropolitan seats. Indeed, Gillard’s almost immediate scrapping of Kevin Rudd’s vision of a “big Australia” suggests the new PM has greater political acumen than her predecessor in terms of reading the mood of an important electoral cohort.

Another issue that can be found amidst the broader immigration debate concerns the environment with many conservationists emphasising the need to consider ecological sustainability.

Yet despite such a range of important and conflicting issues, the major parties seem to focus on dealing with the one component of the debate that can elicit electoral support in key seats. Asylum seekers arguably swayed the Coalition to victory in 2001. It’s clearly the hope of the major parties that they can capitalise on the issue again in 2010.

There are many dimensions to the immigration debate but, by dealing with just one of these, the major parties will allow the other more significant problems to remain unresolved and continually raise their heads in the political debate.

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About the Author

Zareh Ghazarian an Associate Lecturer in Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University and co-author of Australian Politics for Dummies (Wiley) which will be released in August 2010.

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