Try as he might to dress it up with talk of “putting Australian workers first”, it can hardly be doubted that electoral considerations were at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind when he unveiled an overhaul of the 457 visa system on Tuesday.

That the policy’s bite may not match Turnbull’s bark in no way diminishes the significance of the populist shift in rhetoric on immigration — a point underscored less than 24 hours later by US President Donald Trump, when he signed an order curtailing his own government’s visa program for skilled foreign workers.

But while Trump’s move fitted seamlessly with the economic nationalism that defines his political brand, Turnbull has executed an awkward backflip in pursuit of a move that is essentially defensive in character.

Immigration has continued to gain salience as an election issue over the last few terms, even as the sting went out of the boat arrivals issue (the ongoing problem of Manus Island and Nauru notwithstanding).

According to the Australian National University’s post-election survey series, 50% of respondents rated immigration as very important in determining vote choice at last year’s federal election — a match for the previous record set at the “Tampa election” in 2001.

This was of clear advantage to the Liberals, whom 41% rated the better party to handle immigration compared with 20% for Labor. Of respondents who wished to see immigration reduced and rated the issue as extremely important, 57% reported voting Liberal compared with 25% for Labor.

[The end of 457 visas business as usual for department with no credibility to lose]

However, history suggested the Coalition’s dividend from the cessation of boat arrivals would be unlikely to persist to the end of another electoral cycle.

Six years on from the dramas of Tampa and the Pacific solution, when Kevin Rudd got the better of an election campaign fought on industrial relations and interest rates, only 32% of survey respondents were still rating immigration as an extremely important issue.

This time around though, it appears immigration is remaining at the forefront of voters’ minds — the latest evidence being a survey released this week by the Australian National University, which found immigration rising to second place as the most commonly invoked “problem facing Australia today”, after the perennial favourite “economy and jobs”.

The concern for Turnbull is that immigration, while persisting as a high salience issue, is increasingly being seen through an economic rather than a security lens, making it greatly less advantageous to his own side of politics.

Toughness on boat arrivals was always the active ingredient in the Coalition’s immigration mix, a point neatly illustrated by an exercise conducted by Essential Research in early 2013.

One batch of survey respondents was asked to identify which concerned them more out of boat arrivals and 457 visas, with 38% opting for the former and 20% for the latter.

However, the two issues were rated of equal concern by a second batch of respondents for whom the question pointed out that there were 10 times as many workers on 457 visas in any given year as there were annual boat arrivals.

It was at around this time that the then-prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced a crackdown on 457 visas in a vain bid to court favour with western Sydney, prompting fierce mockery from Malcolm Turnbull on Twitter.

[The 457 ways to keep foreign workers while pandering to racists]

Turnbull was substantially on the wrong end of public opinion even then, as registered by a further survey question from Essential, which found 58% support for a reduction in 457 visas, and only 24% opposed.

Opposition has only hardened further since then, with Essential recording 64% in favour and 17% opposed when it posed the same question last November.

Among those who sniffed the breeze was WA Premier Mark McGowan, who last December launched an employment policy under the familiar sounding title of “WA Jobs First”.

An accompanying television spot portrayed McGowan attired in a hard hat and fluoro vest, denouncing the then-Barnett government for its co-operation with federal government schemes to give skilled workers and sponsored migrants access to the Western Australian job market.

Colin Barnett, whose political antennae so often failed him during his last years in office, responded with a question: “Why would Mark McGowan be turning his back on people who have migrated here with skills and contribute to our state and national economy?”

Three months later, voters gave him an answer — and Malcolm Turnbull, it seems, has heard it loud and clear.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey