For its 11-and-a-half years, the Howard government tried to use xenophobia for its political advantage while at the same time running a relatively high immigration policy. It was a tricky act, but John Howard was a skillful politician and, whatever one thinks of it in moral terms (and I have a very low opinion), he managed it very well.

Tony Abbott does not have the same set of political skills, and he has to perform the balancing act from opposition, which is intrinsically more difficult. So it was interesting to see how he managed it in a speech on Friday to the Institute of Public Affairs (reported beforehand in The Age).

What it shows is that Abbott is very explicit about riding two horses at once. A large part of the speech is taken up with the usual nonsense about “stop the boats”, but he then segues into an apparently pro-immigration position, saying “the Coalition has always been pro-immigration and pro-immigrant” and boasting that “John Howard rebuilt a consensus in favour of immigration”.

He then calls for an expansion of the 457 visa program (temporary visas for skilled workers), saying that Labor “has progressively made it more difficult” for them, “mostly to accommodate union concerns”, and that they should be “a mainstay of our immigration program.” It should be pointed out, however, that when Labor cut back on skilled immigration in 2009, the opposition’s response was that it should have acted sooner.

The political tradition Abbott comes from, represented most obviously by Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council, has many sins on its conscience, but racism has generally not been one of them. The DLP supported dismantling the White Australia policy, and in later years Brian Harradine used his influence in the Senate to soften some of the hard edges of Howard’s policies.

So it’s not surprising that at times Abbott has sounded very much like a moderate on immigration, and that trying to toe the Howard line sometimes induced tension — Tony Jones once had to ask him whether he was “playing both good cop and bad cop simultaneously”.

It was in character then for him to say on Friday that “Australians have usually made it easier for immigrants to embrace their new home by appreciating that they would come to terms with life here in their own way and at their own pace. In the meantime, the different accents and different flavours of contemporary Australia have been a strength, not a weakness.” That’s an explicit endorsement of multiculturalism that many of his colleagues would have balked at.

Backing skilled migration in preference to family reunion plays into the narrative of “border control”, the idea being that it’s OK to have immigrants as long as we choose who they are. (Note that the people whose families are being (or not being) reunited don’t count as “we”.)

But in terms of Australia’s actual needs, the emphasis on skilled migration is misguided. Australia is a First World country; in the long run if we have labour shortages they will be mostly for the unskilled.

The idea that the government can pick in advance which immigrants will be useful and which sectors of the economy will need workers assumes a degree of omniscience that we know governments don’t possess.

And all this only makes it more obvious that the war on boat people serves no coherent policy objective. Its only purpose is to appease racist voters so that they will keep quiet about the much larger numbers of immigrants arriving by plane. Again, Abbott is possibly too honest for his own good.

Abbott tells us that “it’s invariably wrong to question newcomers’ commitment to Australia. If they weren’t committed they would not have come”. But there’s surely no group of whom that’s more true than those who risk their lives on small boats to cross the Indian Ocean. Only the politics of the issue forces him to deny that obvious point.

Peter Fray

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