Move over security: economic and cultural immigration may prove difficult for the Turnbull Government

Rightly or wrongly, since 2001 immigration policy has haunted Labor. But things could be changing quickly.

Despite the best efforts of establishing a militarised Border Force, the emerging immigration debates in Australia are not about security. They are economic and cultural, and contain an entirely different set of propositions and implications. If Peter Dutton has grasped how important this is for his portfolio, his actions and words fail to show it. On economic immigration matters, the Coalition will be permanently chasing Labor. Even worse, on cultural immigration, the Coalition is stuck in the middle of two competing strands, where a foot in both camps approach will fail to please anyone. Malcolm Turnbull is in a genuine pickle.

Peter Dutton cannot out ‘Australia First’ Bill Shorten on the intersection of migration and jobs. He doesn’t have the support in caucus. More Coalition members than Labor members believe immigration is substantial economic positive for Australia. He doesn’t have the natural Liberal constituency of big business as they despise jingoism being bad for business. The Nationals know economic immigration is the last big hope for many towns in regional Australia even if they have never fully embraced it publicly. And in general, people don’t believe the Coalition are better for their job future than Labor, even if they are seen as better for managing the economy overall. After all, the Labor party is named after workers.

All of this will constrain policy options and rhetoric for the Coalition. The Government simply will not be able to get ahead of Shorten, who will always be willing to go a step further. For example, if the Government reduced the permanent migration program in the next Budget, Shorten would move to cut it a bit further. He knows Chris Bowen and Jim Chalmers can clean up the mess later if they win government in the future. On economic immigration – 457 visas, international students, backpackers – Dutton is chasing Shorten, who will not let up easily.

This has serious implications for the Coalition Government. Instead of leaking the names of employers who use visa programs under the Labor Government to the Daily Telegraph as happened this morning, Turnbull and Co should talk about anything else. Don’t feed the beast as keeping the spotlight on temporary migration is good for Shorten, almost regardless of the content. Internal Labor research must light up on the issue of foreign workers. This is the same reason Tony Abbott said no to the Malaysia Solution, drawing it out and maintaining the focus on asylum right up until the 2013 election. Peter Dutton should not say the words ‘457 visa’ for two years and he certainly shouldn’t start proposing alternative policies in response to Labor. Malcolm Turnbull should talk about literally anything else: the budget deficit, infrastructure, regional perks and security policy. Allow events help push the conversation away from this stuff.

Unfortunately for Turnbull, the problem is even worse for cultural immigration. The chilling effect of One Nation on the LNP in Queensland and the Coalition federally is yet to fully play out. Yet already there are ominous signs for the Government. Multiculturalism is heavily supported by the public and despite what you read from Essential, most people don’t want an outright ban on muslim migrants. The geographic concentration of Hanson support in traditional Coalition strongholds means she can freelance on these questions without proper opposition. Again, regardless of his efforts, Dutton cannot out pace Hanson to the right because of institutional Liberal policies and a broader cross-section of electoral appeal. You could see David Coleman, the Member for Banks, appear very uncomfortable when Dutton was speaking in Parliament about second and third generation Lebanese Australians. Reconciling a single approach to questions of cultural immigration with regional Australia and suburban marginal seats is very difficult.

The Coalition are literally caught in the middle where everyone from the far-left to the centre-right support multiculturalism and a non-discriminatory migration policy while the fringes get excited about the prospects of returning to White Australia. I don’t know what the solution is but again, I would guess it starts by not feeding the beast. Entering into a debate on the merits or otherwise of muslim migration or trying to highlight bad settlement outcomes (see this parliamentary inquiry) will only egg on the far-right. Whatever public rhetoric is used or policy suggestions mused about will not be enough to sate appetites. On the weekend, a small possibility was flagged: the introduction of new citizenship requirements with stricter English requirements. I don’t see how this does anything to aid the Coalition as opposition from Labor will mean Senate difficulties, which in turn gives One Nation a higher platform, allowing them to own the issue and move forward. That’d what being in the middle is all about and to deliberately enter into self-defeating public debates cycle must be avoided at all costs.

Finally, everyone knows Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t believe either the case for ‘Australia First’ nor promoting cultural assimilation. Trying to fight these big public debates without your Prime Minister onside is exceedingly difficult and will only highlight division and confusion. Tackling these issues head on will attract more attention and provide more incentives for Labor (economic migration) and One Nation (cultural migration) to keep hammering away in different areas of the electorate. This is the difficulty with more populist approaches to migration policy. None of this is necessarily good for migration policy. In fact, much of this may have serious negative effects. But at this stage, that’s largely by the by as the media and political observers are fixated on the machinations instead of the policy outcomes.

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