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The campaign led by Coalition MPs for special visas for white South African farmers is designed to shore up votes in WA and Queensland. By Karen Middleton.

Electoral margins behind Dutton’s South Africans

Up to 3000 people marched through Perth’s city streets last Sunday, waving placards and demanding special visas for white South African farmers fearing violent attacks – even murder – as government policies force them off their land.

Just like at other protests with well-funded backers, many of the placards were professionally printed. Some stole the language of refugee advocates, in the popular hashtag “#bringthemhere”. One of the pre-printed slogans read: “Let The Right Ones In.”

The rally followed a similar sized one in Brisbane on March 26, featuring identical banners.

In online forums favoured by the alt-right, white supremacist organisation Reclaim Australia is claiming credit for the turnout at both.

The rallies came after Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton flagged possible special visas for persecuted white South African farmers.

“I do think on the information that I’ve seen, people do need help, and they need help from a civilised country like ours,” Dutton said last month.

Dutton’s concern is based on more than just sympathy. It stems from hard-headed electoral politics, with a little Liberal wedging thrown in.

It is resonating loudest in two states central to victory or defeat for both the Coalition and Labor at the next federal election: Western Australia and Queensland.

Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and Ian Goodenough spoke at the Perth rally, endorsing the calls for Australia to offer sanctuary.

On Tuesday night, they and their colleague from the seat of Tangney, Ben Morton, convened a special forum in Perth to hear directly from South African expatriates.

Hastie later backed a special visa.

“I think that we should consider an intake as we have done so for Syrian refugees in the past,” he told Sky News. He said he and Goodenough favoured a special intake of 5000 to 10,000.

A fundraising flyer distributed to Labor supporters in Perth on Tuesday and obtained by The Saturday Paper accused Hastie of seeking to undermine Australia’s non-discriminatory humanitarian visa program and of being “out of touch”.

“We need federal MPs who will fight for a fair go for everyone,” the leaflet says, seeking donations for Labor in Canning.

Andrew Hastie said he was proud of Australia’s humanitarian record, including in welcoming Syrian refugees.

“To suggest it’s [about] race – it’s low-ball politics,” he said.

He noted that several marginal Labor-held WA seats also contained significant numbers of South African voters.

And therein may lie part of the motivation for what is now an active political campaign in two states.

Data from the 2016 census shows 162,448 people living in Australia were born in South Africa. Many fled after the apartheid regime ended, fearing rising community violence, land redistribution and an economic downturn. About three quarters of those who came to Australia are now Australian citizens.

Some white South Africans who remained in their country derided those who left as “packing for Perth”, or “PFP”, conveniently also the initials of South Africa’s Progressive Federal Party whose constituency was mostly white liberals like those who chose to migrate.

The largest group of South Africans in Australia is in New South Wales, but Western Australia comes in second.

They are a potentially influential group of voters and as this week’s Perth gatherings demonstrate, the issues surrounding land reclamation and violence in their former homeland may be potent enough to galvanise them into a bloc.

The alt-right’s jubilation also suggests whistling to white supremacists – intended or not – may stop voters on the conservative outer fringes drifting to One Nation, or at least attract their preferences.

South Africans make up 1.6 per cent of WA’s overall population. Residents born in South Africa are in the top five foreign-born groups in 11 of its 16 federal seats.

They come in third among birth countries other than Australia in Hastie’s seat of Canning, and second in Goodenough’s seat of Moore, where they form 3.8 per cent of the population.

South Africans are also gathered in significant numbers in Dutton’s home state, Queensland.

They are in the top five foreign-born groups in 18 of its 30 federal seats and in nine of the 12 marginals – traditionally defined as held by 5 per cent or less. Those include Peter Dutton’s own seat of Dickson, which he holds by 1.6 per cent and where South Africans make up 1.4 per cent of residents.

In Brisbane-based Dickson, South Africans are the third largest foreign-born group after the English and New Zealanders.

But there may be other political dimensions to the conservative-led push to help the South Africans.

They are the third largest foreign-born group in Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s extremely safe Liberal seat of Curtin, making up 2 per cent of its residents.

And in Malcolm Turnbull’s beachside Sydney seat of Wentworth, South Africans come in second on 3.6 per cent – among the largest of their expatriate concentrations in any electorate in the country.

That’s enough to bombard both politicians.

Dutton’s comments angered South Africa, generating diplomatic headaches for Bishop and Turnbull.

Both have downplayed calls for a special visa, insisting South Africans can apply under the current humanitarian category.

Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge attended Hastie’s Tuesday night forum, explaining visas for South Africans would come from there.

“I tried to outline the options which are available under our humanitarian program and under our skills program,” he told journalists later. “We are a very generous country, and I hope we can also be generous towards those South Africans who may be facing persecution.”

Farm attacks are not new in South Africa or neighbouring Zimbabwe, where violent land acquisition flourished under the Mugabe regime’s policy of land expropriation without compensation.

In apartheid South Africa, the law prohibited black South Africans from owning or renting farmland. When apartheid ended, the newly governing African National Congress moved to redistribute land, initially through voluntary sale.

But its policy to increase black landholding has not achieved what it hoped and some three quarters of agricultural land remains in white hands.

In late February, it voted to introduce compulsory acquisition without compensation.

This is the context in which the demands in Australia are being made.

South African police statistics show that aside from two single-year spikes – and four years of missing data in the middle – attacks and murders on farms have been declining since 2001.

They recorded 58 murders and 519 attacks on farms in the year 2015–16, compared with 1069 attacks and 140 murders in 2001–02. But in 2016–17, the figures spiked again, to 638 attacks and
74 murders.

Accurate figures are hard to come by, due to varying definitions of “farm” and a lack of detail on either the motives behind attacks – for example, those related to domestic violence or alcohol as opposed to land acquisition – or the race and role of victims.

The police statistics on farm violence also include some attacks on black farm workers, their families and visitors, and in that context may actually be underestimated.

Here in Australia, South Africans concerned about the fate of white farmers won publicity for their cause last month when News Corp newspapers ran a series of feature articles by journalist Paul Toohey.

Commentator Miranda Devine followed up with a scathing column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on March 14, excoriating both Dutton and Bishop for failing to act. In an interview for her streamed radio podcast that day, Dutton revealed his intentions and made the comments about civilised countries.

The Brisbane rally was two weekends later. Among those attending were independent senator Fraser Anning – formerly of One Nation and now calling for a ban on Muslim migrants – and the Liberal MP for the seat of Bowman, Andrew Laming.

Laming also has a significant South African expat population in his electorate.

At time of press, far-right groups supporting Dutton on South African farmers and far-left groups opposing right-wing views were planning rallies outside Bishop’s Perth office, prompting police fears of a violent clash. 

After Dutton’s initial public comments, South Africa interpreted a clarifying letter from Bishop as a “retraction” of the comments. Dutton says it was no such thing.

The issue has driven a wedge between the two, both touted as potential future Liberal leadership candidates.

The timing of that tension is significant, with Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership under renewed pressure, following his 30th negative Newspoll and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s subsequent demand that he resign if things don’t improve by Christmas.

While sympathising with the South Africans, Peter Dutton has advocated an overall cut to Australia’s immigration intake – winning support among conservatives and accolades from the alt-right.

Andrew Hastie says WA needs migrants but he shares concerns about the capacity of his state’s infrastructure
to manage the growing population.

Infrastructure is an issue both major parties have identified as key in WA.

On a five-day trip to Perth this week, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten deflected immigration questions but promised federal support for a string of major projects if he wins office, aware WA voters complain they don’t see the same investment there as elsewhere in Australia.

Shorten’s pledges are designed to tap that sentiment and offset Labor’s opposition to demands on immigration and the tax take.

The Coalition points to previous Labor promises from then leader Kevin Rudd ahead of his 2007 election win and from then treasurer Wayne Swan in 2012 to establish dedicated infrastructure funds for WA that never came to pass.

“I’m not interested in coming to the west and being a wise man from the east, telling the west what they need,” Shorten told Perth radio 6PR on Wednesday. “I’m interested in what the west wants.”

But what the west seems to want most is a bigger slice of revenue from the GST – something Labor is not promising.

One Liberal says: “The Labor Party want to compensate for a problem rather than fix the problem itself.”

Successive federal governments have baulked at boosting WA’s share – still less than 50 cents for every dollar collected, with the remainder boosting small states with less earning capacity. Instead they have offered other kinds of compensation, mostly in the form of infrastructure spending.

Word in the west is that this won’t wash anymore.

The Saturday Paper understands the Turnbull government is moving to further shore up its stocks there by adjusting the GST distribution formula in WA’s favour.

It has promised this before and also not delivered. But Liberals are now convinced the anger among WA voters is so great that it will be punished severely at the next election if it doesn’t make such a change.

The focus on WA and Queensland stems from the large cluster of marginal seats in both states and the statewide resonance of certain issues, enabling generic campaigns across groups of seats.

But as well as potentially attracting voters, especially in Queensland, the debate about cutting immigration – fuelled initially by the increasingly outspoken former prime minister Tony Abbott – and the kinds of migrants Australia should favour, also risks further dividing the Coalition.

Having reached the same poll milestone this week that he gave as reason to replace Abbott in 2015, Turnbull has begun belatedly to craft a narrative on his economic vision for Australia.

“Australians are focused on the real contest, which is the type of country we want to be,” he told journalists on Monday morning.

“Do we want to be a country that has the strong revenues to fund increased child care, that has record jobs growth, that has lower taxes and more investment? Or do we want to be the country Bill Shorten is offering; higher taxes, less investment, lower employment, Australian jobs going overseas?”

Despite the Abbott-and-Joyce-led insurrection, some Liberals remain confident they can still win from here.

One MP told The Saturday Paper that he was relieved Monday’s Newspoll figure – still in Labor’s favour at 52 per cent to 48 – wasn’t worse. He argues the swing that would reverse that is eminently achievable.

Peter Dutton is among those insisting they are upbeat.

When asked about his own ambition, Dutton – along with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg – answered honestly and said he would like to be prime minister one day, but down the track and not now.

He opted to focus on his own seat. “Dickson’s always been on a knife-edge,” Dutton told 3AW on Monday. “I’ve withstood swings before and I’m doing a lot in my local area so I’m confident, without taking it for granted, that I can win the seat and win it well … My intention is to make sure that we win the election well, whenever it is next year. And that’s what I think we’re all hoping for.”

But hoping together for victory is not the same as agreeing on how to achieve it.

In politics, ideas and individuals are a bit like the visa program: you elevate some at others’ expense.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Electoral margins behind Dutton’s South Africans". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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