Irony the clear leader in Australian election campaign
Australia’s election campaign has been mostly dull and stage-managed, leaving a lot of us bored and cynical, but it has at least served up one delicious irony.
In a land of immigrants, the two main candidates are promising to crack down on immigration if elected — even though both were themselves born overseas.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a fully fledged immigrant, having been born a British citizen, while opposition leader Tony Abbott also has a foreign flavour, having been born in London to Australian parents living abroad.
Gillard is actually one of this country’s original “boat people”, having arrived in the 1960s from Wales on a ship full of “10-pound poms”, Britons who paid a 10-pound one-way fare in the post-war decades for a better life Down Under.
That pony-tailed red-head, who stepped ashore at the age of four, is now promising to stop the boats.
She used one recent media scrum to send a very clear message to people thinking of paying people-smugglers and making a hazardous journey by boat to seek asylum in Australia:
“Do not risk your life only to arrive in Australian waters and find that you are far, far more likely than anything else to be quickly sent home by plane,” she said.
The prime minister seems to be cool on population growth in general, regardless of whether the new Australians arrive by boat, plane or through the swinging doors of a maternity ward.
Since taking the leadership from her old boss, Kevin Rudd, she has ditched his concept of a “Big Australia”, which envisaged the population surging 60 percent to 35 million by 2050.
Gillard instead prefers a “Sustainable Australia”, picking up demographers’ arguments that, despite occupying an entire continent, Australia lacks the power, water and other basic infrastructure to accommodate such a rapid rise in numbers.
Then there’s opposition leader Tony Abbott. He, too, is talking tough — not only illegal immigration, but immigration in general. “What we are planning to do is get our immigration levels to those which we believe are economically, environmentally and politically sustainable,” Abbott said in announcing that he would cut the nation’s immigration intake if he took power.
Since then, Abbott has also promised to introduce minimum 10-year jail terms for people smugglers who repeatedly bring asylum-seekers to Australian shores — sentences akin to punishing manslaughter or rape.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ‘POPULATE OR PERISH’?
Abbott and Gillard are the first foreign-born politicians to campaign for the nation’s highest office since Billy Hughes, another British-born politician, became prime minister during the World War I.
Billy Hughes, like Gillard, was born into a Welsh family and, like Abbott, was born in London. But unlike both of them, he favoured a much bigger population. Though he was a defender of the racist “White Australia policy”, he was all in favour of rapid population growth, once describing his policy as “Populate or Perish”.
So why does a nation of immigrants suddenly go cold on immigration?
An opinion poll by The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper suggests the answer lies in age-old fears about new immigrants taking jobs and putting pressure on scarce resources such as housing.
Nearly three-quarters of Australians do not want a bigger population, the poll showed.
The irony is that the last Australian-born prime minister, Kevin Rudd, didn’t share those fears. He, like many economists, says the answer is more roads and houses, not fewer people.