There’s not much chance we’re going to have a responsible population debate, on the evidence so far.

The coalition may be unclear on population policy — just like Labor is — but they’re keen to connect it up to the idea that the government isn’t controlling our borders effectively.  In a press conference worthy of Spinal Tap on Saturday, Tony Abbott answered every question, including several versions of whether he’d appoint a population minister, by referring to boat people and border protection.

Scott Morrison ran with the idea overnight.  “How can Australians trust Kevin Rudd on future population growth when he can’t even keep his promises to maintain the integrity of our borders?” he told Fairfax, before displaying a brilliant comic sense by adding “Australia is capable of having a calm and mature discussion on this.”  Morrison also compared migration under the Howard government with migration under the Rudd government, suggesting it was 126,000 a year under the former but “over 300,000” under the latter.

That looks an awful lot like a blatant lie.

The Howard government was a high-immigration government.  This seems to be forgotten in the “perpetual present” of political coverage.  Indeed, coalition MPs still boast that Howard was able to run a high immigration program because he’d earned Australians’ trust on border protection.  But now Morrison wants to insist it was a low-immigration government compared to the current one.

So, some numbers.

In 2008-09, there were 171,318 permanent migrants — not, as Morrison suggests, over 300,000.  In 2007-08, it was 158,630.  The previous year, the last full year of the Howard Government, 148,200.  In 2005-06, 143,000.  The increase has been driven be demand for skilled migrants.  Throughout all that time, two-thirds of permanent arrivals came here under the Skilled Migration category.  The remainder has come from the family migration stream.

If you want to choke off the latter, good luck telling skilled migrants they can’t bring their families with them.

That’s separate from the temporary skilled migration category, which the Howard government enthusiastically encouraged as a way of restraining wage demands in industries facing skills shortages. That was just over 118,000 in 2005-06, went beyond 132,000 the following year, then the GFC hit and numbers fell to 110,570 in 2007-08 and only 101,280.  Oddly, I’ve yet to hear the Little Australianists congratulating the government for stopping the flow of temporary visa holders.

Throughout the whole period, overseas students — another area enthusiastically encouraged by the Howard government — surged from 190,627 to 356,251 in 2008-09, with overseas students trying to exploit the Howard government’s rules that made student visas a reliable pathway to permanent migration.  This government has now moved to end that — not that Morrison acknowledged that when the changes were announced in February.

That’s the migration program.  It’s separate from our actual population levels, which can be tracked using ABS data.  Net immigration surged to 98,000 in the March quarter of 2009, but has since dropped back; there has also been a lull in the number of people leaving Australia.

That suggests that we’re looking at a GFC-induced drop in the number of Australians moving overseas, and a rise in the number of Australians returning from overseas.  Think of all those lawyers and bankers lured to London during the boom years, now out of a job and forced to come home.

What’s more interesting than Scott Morrison’s numbers is why Tony Abbott failed to back him on the idea of cutting immigration.  The coalition is deeply conflicted about migration.  Some, like the hypocritical former immigration minister Kevin Andrews, want big cuts in immigration.  Andrews proposed 85% — which in times such as 2009 might mean we’d refused to let Australians wanting to come back into the country back in.  But business strongly supports high immigration — and certainly a continuation of temporary skilled visas.

The Opposition might have hoped it was on a winner on population and border security.  Its own internal division on the issue might yet make that problematic.