This post has been updated

The Liberal Party is clearly concerned that it is facing a heavy defeat on 21 August, with a crass piece of opportunism on immigration today – a plan to limit it to 170,000 a year.

The desperate appeal – from a party led by an immigrant, no less – has yet to be formally announced but has been heavily spruiked today by Tony Abbott in the regular column given him by News Ltd.

As Crikey showed in April, the Coalition’s record of rhetoric on immigration this year has been hopelessly confused and based on either blatant deception or simple inability to count by the Liberals’ appalling immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison.

That confusion appears set to continue. The Coalition’s “cap” of 170,000 is only slightly below that current cap under Labor, of 182,000. That number refers to the level of permanent migration under the economic and family reunion category. But Tony Abbott talks about “net overseas migration”. As Scott Morrison appears unable or unwilling to understand, net overseas migration includes the 182,000 permanent immigration program, the humanitarian program (about 14,000), temporary skilled visa holders who stay longer than 12 months (457 visas can last up to 4 years), student visa holders who stay longer than twelve months, and Australians who return from overseas.

The Coalition’s plan to cap net overseas movements at 170,000 therefore would mean either keeping the current skilled migration and family reunion components, which together make up nearly all the 182,000, and simply abandoning the humanitarian program and temporary protection and students visas over twelve months, or shrinking every category to fit under a cap of 170,000.

News reports indicate the Coalition wants to abandon family migration (which is currently about one-third of the permanent migration program) entirely and simply have skilled migration.

Good luck telling highly-skilled migrants that they can move to Australia but they can’t bring their partners and kids with them.

The move has been forced on the Liberals because Labor has worked hard to shore up its own position on the issue since the election was announced, not merely defending itself but actively campaigning on a disingenuous platform of “sustainable immigration”. It has evidently forced the Liberals into an even more extreme position of saying what Labor won’t say – that it will dramatically curb immigration.

The irony of all this is that under the Howard Government, Australia lost control of its immigration program because both the student visa and the temporary skilled visa provided backdoor access to permanent migration status. For a party supposedly opposed to queue-jumping, the Liberals presided over queue-jumping on a massive scale as foreign students rorted the student visa category – vociferously supported by the shonks and spivs of the so-called “international education industry” – to become permanent migrants. That scam was shut down by Labor earlier this year.

In truth, though, the numbers and the internal contradictions and plain stupidity of this policy are irrelevant. This is about a blatant appeal to bigotry, an attempt to get the “f***k off, we’re full” types into the Liberal column, to exploit voters’ confusion over the lack of infrastructure and poor planning by state governments with both the issues of both migration and asylum seekers.

It confirms that, like Labor, the Liberals have abandoned any policy credibility and are utterly unfit to govern.

What an appalling choice we face on 21 August.

Update: Peter Martin has a hard copy of the Coalition policy from Tony Abbott’s 10.45am presser.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey