Racism doesn't actually win elections in Australia, Malcolm
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Racism doesn't actually win elections in Australia, Malcolm

Patriotism isn't just the last refuge of a scoundrel; it's also pretty handy for political parties with nothing substantial to offer.

In 1987 then-leader of the Liberal Party John Howard was under pressure from his conservative wing and decided he'd fight the looming federal election on a platform which included curbing Asian immigration – with enthusiastic support from the National Party under Ian Sinclair.

It turned out to be a really, really stupid idea.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Dutton announce the scrapping of 457 visas in April.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Dutton announce the scrapping of 457 visas in April.

Photo: Andrew Meares

Moderate Liberal voters deserted the party in droves. Members of Howard's own shadow ministry crossed the floor in protest. The idea that the leader of a major party, especially one that claimed to be the great champion of individual liberty, would sink to race-based politics drew well-deserved contempt from the media, the public and the Parliament.

Not only did Howard lose the election to the worn-out Labor government of Bob Hawke, but he was easily rolled as leader by Andrew Peacock within weeks of his loss.

Almost 30 years later we have the Liberal prime minister under pressure from his conservative wing calling for tougher restrictions on immigration – specifically skilled migrant visas – with a particular emphasis on making it harder for migrants to come here from non-English-speaking cultures.

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And a lot of commentators seem to be awfully coy about calling this for what it is, so let's grasp the nettle: hoo boy, things have sure gotten racist around these parts.

Let's make one thing clear to start with: the changes to 457 visas have nothing to do with providing jobs for Australians first.

One clue: the professions which would no longer be covered by the visa are hardly going to put a dent in the joblessness figures, unless Australia has been enjoying a secret blacksmithing renaissance hitherto mysteriously open only to immigrants.

The other is that the visa requirements already demand that jobs be offered to Australian candidates first, so if there is a problem with jobs going to non-Australians first it's because the Immigration Department has been either unwilling or unable to police compliance over the past five years.

That our Prime Minister – a cosmopolitan chap who has previously spoken out about the great success of multiculturalism in our immigrant nation – is spouting a new citizenship policy that appears based upon demands to speak English should be horrific, of course. But Malcolm Turnbull's now characteristic about-faces on supposed matters of principle have by now lost any power to shock.

However, this new zeal for fuzzy notions of what constitutes sufficient Australianness is motivated not by matters of principle, much less by concern over Australian jobs, but of electoral arithmetic: the same motivations that made xenophobia so attractive to Howard.

The hard right of Australian conservatism are flocking to anti-immigration parties like Pauline Hanson's One Nation, and the Coalition fear being forced into some sort of super-coalition with them in order to form government. Hence this new nationalism is part of an attempt to woo the more cowardly elements of the right-wing community so the government doesn't ever have to pretend to take Malcolm Roberts seriously.

The problem with doing that is there are not actually all that many voters at the hard right. Or, for that matter, the hard left.

The overwhelming majority of Australian voters are clumped in the centre. If the Liberals pander too obviously to the bigot vote to win over One Nation fans their moderate base will, and history shows this, be disgusted and vote for Labor, according to ABC psephologist and national election-treasure Antony Green.

"At every One Nation debut election, the party's vote was matched by a huge decline in first preference support for the Liberal and National parties," he explained in a piece ahead of the recent WA election in which the Liberals cut a preference deal with One Nation.

"Much of that change was a direct switch of first preference support from the Coalition to One Nation. Some was a switch of Labor voters to One Nation, but Labor's vote was bolstered by Coalition voters deserting to Labor."

The subsequent humiliating demolition of the Liberal WA government of Colin Barnett suggests this equation is still valid. Mainstream Australia, it would appear, aren't nearly as scared of foreigners as our shock jocks and immigration policies would have you assume.

So the challenge for the Liberals has become how to appeal to racists while making racism seem reasonable to the mainstream voter. Hence statements that dog whistle to xenophobes while pretending that it's all really about jobs, you guys. Won't someone think of the blacksmiths?

In 1988 Liberal MPs were game to stand up against the craven, cynical race-baiting of their leadership. Let's see whether any have the courage or principles to do so in 2017.

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street is a columnist for Fairfax Media.

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