Refugee debate heats up Aussie election campaign

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) touring the vineyard of Mr Josef Chromy (right) in Tasmania. Mr Turnbull's approval ratings have slipped in recent polls.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) touring the vineyard of Mr Josef Chromy (right) in Tasmania. Mr Turnbull's approval ratings have slipped in recent polls.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

PM Turnbull follows his predecessors with defiant hard-line stance on asylum seekers

During a campaign visit to a winery on the island state of Tasmania on Friday, Australia's Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, politely declined a glass of its prize-winning chardonnay.

Keen to stay on message, he promoted the benefits of free trade for the region's farmers.

But he soon found himself discussing a much thornier topic from the accompanying media: his attitude towards immigration and refugees.

"We are the most successful multicultural nation in the world," he insisted.

The visit, six weeks from the federal election on July 2, reflected the shifting focus of Australia's tightly fought campaign, which has suddenly turned from arguments about fixing the faltering economy to a divisive debate about migrants and multiculturalism.

Despite his reputation as an open-minded liberal, Mr Turnbull has been accused of encouraging a scare campaign after he backed a senior MP who made controversial comments about refugees.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told a television interviewer on Tuesday that most refugees were illiterate and innumerate, and would "be taking Australian jobs".

The comments were attacked by the opposition as "deeply divisive and offensive", and the issue quickly dominated the second week of the election campaign.

The Labor leader, Mr Bill Shorten, likened Mr Dutton's claim to the rhetoric of the controversial former right-wing MP Pauline Hanson, who was elected in 1996 and famously attacked Asian immigration and multiculturalism.

In this nation of immigrants - about 28 per cent of Australia's population of 24 million people were born overseas - the extent to which the door should be opened to newcomers can be a testy topic.

An editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday urged Mr Turnbull to "unite the nation", saying Mr Dutton's comments demonised refugees and appealed to racists.

But Mr Turnbull held fast, insisting Mr Dutton was an "outstanding" minister and the comments were intended to highlight the costs of absorbing refugees.

The Prime Minister accused Labor of being "soft" on border security.

It was a defiant display that seemed at odds with his reputation as a warm-hearted progressive.

But his move is less surprising when one examines recent Australian political history.

Mr Turnbull's predecessors, former Coalition leaders John Howard and Tony Abbott, received significant boosts at the 2001 and 2013 federal elections over their hard-line approaches to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Mr Abbott campaigned in 2013 on a pledge to "stop the boats" and later introduced one of the world's toughest approaches to refugees.

Mr Turnbull's stance can be explained in part by the need to retain the support of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party.

Opinion polls also show his approval ratings slipping and his first Budget on May 3 received an unenthusiastic public response.

A Fairfax-Ipsos poll yesterday showed he is the preferred prime minister for 47 per cent of voters, compared with 30 per cent support for Mr Shorten and 22 per cent undecided.

Mr Turnbull's support has slipped from 67 per cent after he deposed Mr Abbott last year.

As several commentators noted, the issue of border security is hardly the most vexing question facing the nation as it recovers from the end of a mining boom and confronts soaring debt and stagnant wages and growth.

But it is an issue which tends to favour the Coalition - and Mr Turnbull needs a boost.

"Whenever border security is the issue, it (the Coalition) wins," wrote political commentator Phillip Coorey in The Australian Financial Review.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Refugee debate heats up Aussie election campaign'. Print Edition | Subscribe