Tony Burke’s appointment as Population Minister, charged with the task of taking 12 months to produce a population strategy, is a small but neat demonstration of the longer-term realities for both sides of politics.

Early this year I suggested that population might be a politically-productive little story for the Coalition: play on people’s latent, or frequently not-so-latent, resistance to high immigration, cloak it in the language of sustainability – talk about infrastructure, congestion, planning and so on – and give even the high-minded a credible reason to feel under siege from foreigners.  Throw in some lines about incompetent state Labor governments, link it to border security to create a general impression that Labor isn’t in control of Australia’s borders, and you’re off to the races.

Curiously, the Coalition has failed to make any headway on the issue despite a big spike in the number of asylum seekers arriving in boats and the efforts of the right-wing press to get some of the old Tampa-era xenophobia going.  That might be partly because Scott Morrison, who replaced the supposedly poor-performing Sharman Stone as shadow minister, puts out lots of press releases and is a Press Gallery favourite but seems to lack cut-through. It might be because Australians have got over their obsessions with the idea of seaborne invasions.

It may also be that, as it is on a number of issues, the Coalition is hopelessly conflicted, with only a thin veneer of unity.  For a couple of months they managed to give the impression of marching in lockstep to Tony Abbott’s ideological soundtrack (think Rocky), but that was never going to last. If something as innocuous as Earth Hour can expose the Liberals as childishly divided between the Greg Hunts and the Dennis Jensens and Corey Bernardis, then you know there’s a whole lot of internal bickering about to explode once things start to go wrong, as they have in the last fortnight.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

And it’s not just the simplistic division between conservatives and moderates, nor Barnaby Joyce’s amazing ability to be at odds with everyone in the Coalition, including himself.  As Guy Rundle has observed elsewhere on this site, there’s now a genuine ideological confusion in conservative ranks.  Tony Abbott himself best demonstrates it with his mix of extreme social conservatism – I mean FFS, who is seriously a monarchist any more? – and big-government interventionism.  Not even his own side believes Abbott’s rhetoric about how committed he is to small government and lower taxes, not merely because his first two and so far only policies have been all about bigger government, more spending and tax rises, but because they knew him during the Howard years, and they knew the man he is slavishly trying to copy.  This clashes directly with the party’s economic and social liberals – not always one and the same – and the party’s business base.

The Coalition’s position on population will be tugged in similar directions.  There will remain strong support for high immigration – immigration of the levels seen during the Howard years – for a variety of reasons: reflexive support for the idea of a “Big Australia”; business support for high immigration both to stimulate growth and to curb wage demands from unions in a tight labour market, and perhaps even a genuine liberal commitment to free movement of peoples.  But there’ll be party reactionaries like the appalling Kevin Andrews, who has already called for an 85% cut to immigration, keen to exploit community xenophobia, and perhaps even green-minded Liberals who share the environmental movement’s conviction that humans are a particularly toxic form of pollution. And then there’s Barnaby Joyce, of course, who’s convinced we won’t be able to feed 20 million people in a few years’ time let alone 36 million.

That may be why the Coalition’s response to Burke’s appointment yesterday was a repeated effort to ignore the entire issue of population policy in favour of claiming too many boat people were coming.

On the other side, Labor has read the tea leaves on population and quickly and professionally put together a decent facsimile of action.  The Prime Minister can now say that he has appointed the first Population Minister.  A review is under way, giving Rudd an excuse to duck the issue between now and the election, but also providing the basis for a response to the Little Australianists like Dick Smith whenever they demand action to curb the plague of people coming here and eating our food.

Bear in mind Labor’s own heritage on immigration is mixed.  The Parliamentary party has long been a “big Australia” supporter, from the days of Calwell through to its recent and occasionally continuing history of ethnic branch-stacking.  But trade unions have been traditional opponents of high immigration, for exactly the reason business supports it, and the urban Left fringes of the party will lean to the environmentalist view that there’s very much such a thing as too many people.

In truth yesterday’s appointment is a slightly eccentric decision, because a population strategy must be part and parcel of the work the Government is undertaking through the COAG process in both capital city infrastructure planning and housing supply issues. Coming at this late stage suggests the Government continues to feel it has to demonstrate that it has Australia’s borders under control – a concern that prompted changes to student visas and some National Security State theatrics back in early February.

It will also brings Tony Burke closer to the action.  Burke is one of the Government’s best and most aggressive performers in Parliament, but he is confined to Agriculture, sidelining him much of the time.  Now he will have more of a roving commission in Question Time.