The anti-immigration genie is out of the bottle in this federal election campaign, and it seems nothing can stop it.

There was a time in Australian politics — albeit a brief time between the end of the White Australia policy and the advent of Pauline Hanson — when the major parties, by and large, avoided exploiting anti-immigration sentiment for political gain.

The kind of political gambit we’ve seen from Peter Dutton this week — in which he warned about the costs of “illiterate” and “innumerate” refugees to the Australian community — once would have earned the ire of the likes of The Australian. Times have changed, with key moments including the Tampa crisis, Labor’s flip-flopping over strategy, and Tony Abbott’s simple but effective “stop the boats” mantra.

But back in 1990, Liberal leader Andrew Peacock was dealt what was believed to be a devastating blow by The Australian’s Paul Kelly, for a much gentler jibe at immigrants.

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey

Choose what you pay, from $99.

Sign up now

In the lead-up to election day, Peacock, trying to dislodge formidable PM Bob Hawke, expressed fears that the MFP concept (multi:function polis, a popular idea at the time) would lead to an Asian “enclave” being established in Australia.

In a front-page takedown under the heading, “Peacock: A Danger in The Lodge”, Kelly wrote:

“Mr Peacock has stooped to exploit immigration fears and anti Japanese sentiment in a way which suggests that Australia’s national interests are best preserved by keeping Mr Peacock in opposition.”


A furious Peacock later confronted Kelly at the National Press Club, threatening:

“I’ll get you after the election. I’ll deal with you in another forum, you bastard, because I don’t deal with cowards.”

In a piece in The Fifth Estate, published 12 years ago by RMIT Journalism, veteran journalist Max Suich noted that it’s hard to believe now that a comment piece in a newspaper on this issue could have damaged a leader’s campaign.

“The curious fact is that as opinion becomes both noisier and ubiquitous its influence declines,” he said.

You can read Suich’s analysis here – it still holds up.

This piece was originally published at InDaily.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

Join us and save up to 50%

Subscribe before June 30 and choose what you pay for a year of Crikey. Save up to 50% or, chip in extra and get one of our limited edition Crikey merch packs.

Join Now