Fear & buildings at the Press Club – the population debate

It was with heavy heart that I tuned in to the Population Debate held on August 5. With all the xenophobic dogwhistling from both parties, I fully expected that the ‘debate’ would actually turn out to be a series of arguments about whether Nauru or East Timor was a better place to put those dangerous asylum seekers, and just how many immigrants would be turned away. The presence of Scott Morrison – the Coalition’s spokesperson on Immigration – as the debating partner for the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, seemed to confirm my worst fears.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Tony Burke’s opening argument. Immigration, he said, was only a short-term fix to the problem of creating a sustainable population environment. Making promises to reduce the total national number of immigrants does not address the real problem – that Australia’s infrastructure and population needs vary wildly all over the country. People in Western Sydney face intolerable traffic jams, people in regional areas face skills shortages. What’s needed is an approach that looks at decentralisation and regional solutions, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

He listed a series of government achievements: doubled roads funding, increasing funding for rail, decentralised housing programs. Then came a list of proposals to address the problem of our ageing population – increased superannuation guarantee, increased retirement wage and re-skilling programs.

Scott Morrison’s argument could not have been more different. Immigration, he said, has made us what we are today. When managed well it is a fair and orderly process, and the Rudd government inherited a program that ‘Australians trusted’. Then, out it came – ‘illegal’ boat arrivals.

Every boat that arrives takes the place of a refugee waiting patiently in the ‘queue’. Morrison painted the latter as bearing up with saint-like serenity while moustache-twirling people on boats took advantage of their purity for their own evil ends. These poor people in the queue are ‘orderly’, they deserve our first choice, Morrison said.

At this point protesters, who had somehow made it into the National Press Club, started shouting, ‘fair go for refugees’. Morrison’s response was to become louder and more strident, until he was nearly yelling to be heard. It was a stark contrast to Gillard’s calm, measured reaction to the protester in Queensland who broke in to her media conference on climate change.

At the top of his voice, Morrison laid out the Coalition’s plan for dealing with asylum seekers. Temporary Protection Visas for everyone, universal offshore processing on Nauru, and turning back the boats. ‘This is a battle of resolve and we intend to win it as we did before,’ he shouted.

Our population is rising, for which Morrison blamed the government. He gave no reasons to back up his statement. The problem is immigration; and infrastructure development won’t fix that. He finished by quoting Howard: ‘We will decide who comes to our country, and in what circumstances they come’.

Given the disparity in their opening arguments, it was predictable that many of the questions they faced would be about the asylum seeker issue. Asked about towing back the boats, Burke replied that although former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had backed that idea, they now knew that ‘no country would accept a boat’, and that the boats would be scuttled. Morrison said a boat would be turned back if seaworthy, and pooh-poohed Burke’s response. It’s no great secret, he said, that people smugglers would ‘do and say anything to try to frustrate govt policy’.

When it was pointed out that a 1994 study on population reached 27 million, our quality of life would degrade sharply, Burke admitted that both sides had been way behind action on the issue, and that ‘we need to ‘fess up’ and address the issues. Morrison claimed he had raised the infrastructure issue as Shadow Minister for Immigration, but that the Minister had to decide how many people were going to come to Australia.

Burke also suggested that we should look at whether we can continue to put suburbs on top of our best soils, given our needs for food and water will increase. There was no response from Morrison.

Pushed to justify why asylum seekers were a threat to Australia, Morrison backed off. ‘It’s about the fairness and integrity of our immigration program,’ he said. The Coalition would rather see people from (for example) the camps on the Thailand/Burma border come here. ‘We’ll ensure the refugees come from the people in the greatest need’. Settlement in Australia was not guaranteed, he added; anyone in Nauru would be required to make applications for settlement in other countries. He went on to note that although the total number of acceptances were falling, people are still here because of the appeals process.

Burke tried to bring the debate back to infrastructure and decentralisation. Mining and agricultural areas need more people to fill skills shortages, while congested areas can’t handle what they have now. Encourage decentralisation, tailor the approach by the region and listen to what people on the ground need. Predictably, Morrison was having none of that. It’s about immigration, he said. Up to 30% of new immigrants settle in urban centres, and that won’t change in the short term. He also alleged that there would be no new infrastructure or services to deal with current problems.

Finally, in closing arguments, Burke stuck firmly to his ‘no immigration content’ plan. It’s not enough to say that it’s difficult to decentralise – ‘we can do this … we have to be willing to say we can deal with issues differently to how we did it in the past’. The mining boom, retirees moving to regional areas and the National Broadband Network will all assist decentralisation.

Morrison, too, stayed true to this theme. ‘Immigration has everything to do with it,’ he said. (Morrison’s emphasis). The Coalition would not surrender to people smugglers, it was committed to put Australia on a sustainable population path and had a real plan. He finished up by observing that Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, was not there to debate him. Unsurprising, given it was a population debate.

So let’s break it down.

The Minister for Sustainable Population talked about upgrading Australia’s roads and rail, decentralising the population, looking at new suburban planning based on agricultural needs, better communications networks and a tailored, regional approach to the challenges of our diverse settlement patterns. He remarked that cutting immigration would do nothing to solve the existing problems or the problems of the future, and that asylum seeker policy was irrelevant to this debate.

The Shadow for Immigration talked about asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. He blew the dogwhistle so hard, and so often, that it’s a wonder we didn’t get reports of an outbreak of canine deafness in the immediate area of the National Press Club.

And what was he doing there, anyway? Who thought Morrison was a good match-up for Burke? It’s no wonder he didn’t speak to questions of infrastructure – his portfolio is Immigration (although you might be forgiven for thinking he was the Shadow for Stopping the Scary Boat People).

It was a completely mismatched debate. The question is, why? Did the Coalition not have anyone shadowing Tony Burke, who could speak on the issues? Nope – Cory Bernardi is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for both Population and Infrastructure. He would have been ideally suited to stand up with Burke.

Maybe Bernardi wasn’t available and they sent Scott Morrison along instead. Nope, still doesn’t make sense. Why would you send your Immigration spokesperson to take the place of your specialist on population and infrastructure? And if there was a replacement, why was it not announced as such at the start of the debate?

It certainly looks like the substitution was deliberate – as if the whole point were to drag Labor into an asylum seeker debate, so the Coalition could try to jam them up on the East Timor policy.

If so, it sends one of several bad messages to the electorate. Either: the Coalition has no policy for infrastructure and sustainable population; they have dismissed the issue as unimportant; they are unprepared to debate Burke; or they are trying to push this election so it is fought solely on asylum seeker policy.

And just on that last possibility? Today’s announcement of the Coalition’s communications strategy was overshadowed by an earlier media conference at which Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison announced the result of talks with Nauru about offshore processing of asylum seekers. When the broadband policy was announced by Tony Smith and Andrew Robb, the latter responded to forceful questioning by evoking – again – the spectre of the boats.

Add to that Abbott’s refusal to apologise for appropriating the image of an unseaworthy boat on which five Australian citizens died – not even an asylum seeker boat – for the Coalition’s scare ads, and the picture becomes depressingly clear.

The Coalition had a real opportunity to bring out some forward-looking policy. Instead, they chose to play the fear card. They could have looked at targeting immigration to areas looking for skilled workers – instead, they told us about Temporary Protection Visas and Nauru. You don’t do that unless you’ve got an agenda – and this debate clearly shows their hand.

The debate was a clear win to Tony Burke – and a big gain for Labor, since they showed they are able to separate asylum seekers from every other issue in this election.

It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the Coalition.

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