The money line from Chris Evans this morning in announcing changes to the skilled migration program was that this was about  “taking back control of our immigration program”.

The announcement is a big step in the Government’s pre-emptive attempt to ensure immigration does not turn against it in an election year.  Unlike with climate change, the Government won’t be caught out thinking it owns an issue that is starting to damage it.

The Opposition has taken its time finding its line on the issue, partly because Scott Morrison is new to the portfolio.  Kevin Andrews in fact beat him to the punch, calling for an 85% slashing of immigration as soon as he returned to the front bench.  Since then, Tony Abbott has been unclear on the issue, talking about how he “instinctively” favours high immigration but more recently emphasising the need for a sustainable population.  Andrews ran a huge immigration program when in Government, much to the delight of business, which reflexively supports a growing population.

Meantime, both sides of politics have had a march stolen on them by the likes of Dick Smith, who has been spruiking for a new political party to cut immigration — again on the basis of “sustainability”.

“Sustainability” is the new dog-whistle on immigration and population issues.  Only, it’s left-wing dog-whistling.  The idea that Australia can’t support a higher population without massive environmental degradation and loss of urban amenity is a line that has been pushed by  environmentalist groups and racist groups for years.  It gives people who hate the idea of high immigration an excuse to oppose it without sounding like they hate foreigners.  Thus the talk of how Australia — with one of the lowest population densities in the world — is fragile, running out of water and won’t be able to feed or house any more people.

The normal solutions to such problem are, of course, provided by markets and price signals that direct investment to and reward innovation in areas of scarcity — an idea that’s anathema to the far left and far right.

The Government has been aware for some time that the Coalition might turn to population issues in an attempt to get back in the electoral contest later this year.  The ascension of Tony Abbott to the leadership would have reinforced their concerns.  That it would be archly hypocritical doesn’t particularly matter — the Coalition in Opposition, and not just under Abbott, has shown itself quite happy to turn its back on its strong points or key policies from the Howard years in search of electoral advantage (just as the Beazley Opposition did with Labor’s record).

It was significant that the Government plainly changed its spin on the population figures in the Intergenerational Report, from the Prime Minister welcoming “a big Australia” in November to Wayne Swan assuring us that the 36 million population estimate was not a target or “set in stone” but only reflected demographic trends of the past 40 years extrapolated to the next 40.

Evans’ changes — complete with high-profile trashing of 20,000 visa applications — and their careful timing to lead off the Monday media cycle are intended to send a clearer signal not merely that the Governments will decide which skilled migrants come to this country and the circumstances in which they come, but that immigration is to be a tool in support of economic growth, not some random factor to be accommodated.  In 2008-09, nearly two-thirds of the 171,000 people who arrived under the Government’s Migration Program did so under the Skill Stream.

The expected angry reaction to the changes from Indian students and, quite possibly, the Indian Government, will help.  Despite sympathy for Indian students who have been victims of violence, racially motivated or not, there’s a resentment toward the Indian Government and media being stirred successfully by our own media.  Who said Labor couldn’t dog-whistle as well?

To get the full story, you have to (as usual) read Laura Tingle’s coverage in the Fin, where she outlines the clash between Immigration and the Education Department over the issue and the tensions within federal cabinet.

The unspoken trade-off here though is between the complaints of the international educations sector, which is increasingly disreputable anyway despite its alleged large contribution to exports, and possible damage to the relationship with India, and the Government’s desire to show it is in control of immigration and that it is sustainable.

Whether it’s enough to cut the ground from under the “sustainable population” crowd will become clearer as we get closer to the election.

Peter Fray

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