Bernard Keane has a good piece in this morning’s Crikey election special edition, reflecting on yesterday’s installment of the so-called population debate. Let’s remember that Julia Gillard linked the asylum seeker issue to infrastructure and sustainability issues in the first place. The logical question that she needs to face is what her policy will be on skilled immigration (and I wonder if several days running of media events on high school and vocational education trade skills stuff is an oblique answer) and whether her government intends to reduce immigration.
If it is the case that residents of Western Sydney and elsewhere are primarily concerned by a lack of infrastructure, it can’t all be plonked in there tomorrow. She’s said we need to pause and take a breath, and Tony Burke is leading a review.
But yesterday, on radio, she sought to deny any link, being confronted by a jingle that interspersed some of her remarks with very similar ones from John Howard.
On cue, the rather odious Scott Morrison popped up to attack this delinking. Keane wryly observes that we should “[b]ear in mind that the Coalition’s idea of a population debate includes graphics with red lines from Islamic countries invading Australia.” But the Coalition’s answer is also a review – by the renamed Productivity and Sustainability Commission.
So up popped Mark Latham on Sky News, calling Gillard’s policy “a “con job” and “fraud of the worst order” on the good citizens of western Sydney” and calling for an immigration cut. Incidentally, Latham has also been touting Kevin Rudd, another former Labor leader, as a loose cannon. The irony of that apparently escapes him.
So what do we have here?
Two things at least:
(a) The unravelling of policy made on the run, and made precisely to try to straddle the sorts of terms that will make people with very opposed views on why they don’t want higher immigration happy;
(b) The difference between a “debate” and a stoush which is driven by policy designed by focus group.
In truth, it’s not very enlightening.
Update: An interesting take from Peter Brent:
Qualitative research – where groups of swinging voters are gathered for drinks and nibblies and led in a discussion – is better, but even that is loaded with the researcher’s assumptions.
Something being a red hot issue doesn’t make it a vote-changer. But if the researcher believes it is, her findings will reflect this.
Prime Minister Julia “I choose my words very carefully” Gillard may insist otherwise, but everyone knows “sustainable population”, border protection and immigration are all tied together. That’s the whole idea of talking about them.
Having high levels of immigration is, like recent decades’ economic reforms such as deregulation, privatisation and lowering of tariffs, something both political parties agree on but the majority of voters don’t (at least at the time).
You might call it a technocratic consensus. It’s not a democratic one.