Normally, the start of the political year is heralded by the PM and the Leader of the Opposition giving set-piece speeches ahead of the return of parliament, with the goal of trying to set the agenda. The speeches tend to be pabulum, but they get pored over like sacred texts by political journalists eager for something to write about after the summer break.
But these days, it’s Tony Abbott who kicks things off. By the end of January last year, he’d already attacked Palestinians, lectured “rebellious” colleagues (LOL) and issued a manifesto for political reform including abandoning climate action. And right on cue yesterday — evidently unchastened by the humiliation of being comprehensively repudiated by the electorate over marriage equality — he re-emerged in a chat with his good friend, Sydney radio entertainer Ray Hadley, to declare that, in effect, Indigenous Australians should be damn grateful for white invasion and that we should cut migration.
Once upon a time, Abbott could be regarded as a serious thinker on Indigenous issues, with a genuine interest in Aboriginal communities — certainly far more interest than Malcolm Turnbull ever displayed. Now, he’s become just another white reactionary.
On migration, Abbott is a migrant himself, of course. He came to Australia with his family when he was three. Particularly nationalistic Australians might wonder where someone who wasn’t born here gets off talking about curbing migration. The rest of us might merely point to the well-known phenomenon of the drawbridge migrant: the person who suddenly develops very strong views about restricting who can enter a country — but only after they themselves have been allowed to enter.
In a country where more than half the population are either born overseas or have a parent born overseas, it means there are an awful lot of immigrants who might take umbrage at Abbott’s comments — or a lot of drawbridge migrants who might nod in agreement.
Either way, he’s likely to get more traction than in his crusade for freedom for the rights of bigots last year. Until wages start growing, the government is exposed to the charge that ordinary Australians aren’t benefiting from the economy despite constantly being told there’s a jobs boom and everything is rosy. And migration and the perception that Australians aren’t being given priority over foreigners, while not as toxically widespread as in the US and the UK, is still potent. That’s particularly the case given that in Sydney and Melbourne it’s not just about jobs, but the role migration plays in adding to demand for housing in major cities and adding to pressure on infrastructure.
In 2016-17, net overseas migration rose by 27% to 245,00 entrants — the highest number since the financial crisis had a flood of expatriate Australians return home as the global recession hit. It’s also way above the level when Abbott was Prime Minister, of around 180,000. The “fuck off, we’re full” bumper sticker sentiment is more ripe for exploitation than at any time in recent years. And it’s an issue with a confusing ideological lineage — neoliberals and economists back open borders and businesses want unrestricted migration to keep wages down, while unions, right-wing populists and environmentalists — not to mention celebrities like Dick Smith — all have varying objections to migration. Abbott might have more luck trying to set the agenda this year. It’s the last thing Malcolm Turnbull needs.
Which is, of course, the point.