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.
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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.