Sean Kelly
Turnbull backs in the race favourite

In April, excitement rippled through the ranks of politics-watchers. There had been a reported sighting of that unicorn of Australian politics: Malcolm Turnbull saying no to Peter Dutton.

Dutton had, according to a story in The Australian, told cabinet colleagues he wanted to reduce the cap on permanent migration from 190,000 to 170,000. The brave prime minister joined forces with his treasurer, Scott Morrison, and “knocked the idea on the head”.

Turnbull, ever modest, initially denied the report as “completely untrue”, although as the days went by and the controversy continued it became progressively less clear which bit, precisely, he was denying. The word “completely” began to look as though it had been somewhat abused.

Whatever the precise interactions of the three men at the time, we learnt this week that Dutton eventually did, as Dutton usually does, get his way. The original report said he had wanted to cut numbers by 20,000. Lo and behold, last Friday The Australian reported that “tougher vetting rules imposed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have cut 21,000 from the annual intake”. Sure, it’s not a cap, but for this year at least it does the job.

If Turnbull was upset by this postponed defeat, he was determined not to show it, telling Melbourne radio host Neil Mitchell the cut was “good … on the basis that we are not taking any more than we need”. It was, he said, like an HR department, where you “make sure you’re recruiting the best and the brightest and not recruiting anyone that you don’t want, or you don’t need”. Dutton had earlier in the week said the effect of cutting permanent migration would be positive for the economy because “we’re bringing more productive people in”.

This might have come as a surprise to Treasurer Morrison, who back in February had pointed out that cuts would cost the budget several billion dollars. It might even have come as a surprise to the Turnbull of old, who in 2011 told a conference “anyone who thinks it’s smart to cut immigration is sentencing Australia to poverty”.

Once upon a time, such reversals might have embarrassed Turnbull, and hurt him in the public eye. Early in his prime ministership, approval numbers rocketing, he would have imagined himself breaking the mould, a new type of leader. But like most political leaders, over time Turnbull has, wisely if not admirably, accepted the narrowness of his immediate task. His job is not to outdo great leaders of yesteryear. His job is to beat Bill Shorten. If that involves making political hay out of immigration, Turnbull is prepared to do it.

In broad terms – and some specific ones, which we’ll get to – this is obviously disappointing. Politically it could end up an advantage. He may no longer inspire the hopes that he once did, and of course that is a weakness when seen against what might have been. But it depends on your point of comparison. If that other, mythical Turnbull is by now long forgotten, then the current version begins to seem not so much a letdown as simply what he is: a fairly standard Liberal leader. It is possible to understand the growing acceptance of Turnbull by voters in this context.

The immediate battle with the Opposition leader, of course, is in the Super Saturday byelections taking place a week from today. Turnbull last week said the Longman byelection was a test of the candidates and the parties, “but really it is about the people of Longman deciding whether they want to vote for Bill Shorten … The head-up, the contest is between me and Bill Shorten.” Reports from the campaign trail suggest neither leader is liked, though Pauline Hanson is doing just fine. This striking detail comes from Amy Remeikis at Guardian Australia – apparently local reporters are “still shaking their head at a recent shopping centre visit where an entire cafe of people moved as one to greet her”. Which might go a long way to explaining the sudden Coalition focus on population, migration and ethnicity.

In a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books this month, which I was alerted to by Richard Cooke on Twitter, Canadian anthropologist Wynn Coates argued both Donald Trump and the would-be Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders succeeded by arguing that “the system is rigged” and people were being “ripped off”. The difference was that Trump argued those doing the ripping off were foreigners and immigrants, while Sanders argued it was businesses and the rich. But voters who felt “ripped off” weren’t forced to make that choice, because in the end only Trump was on the ballot.

One fascinating thing about the current contest between the Coalition and Labor is that it is, in some ways, an attempt to replay that election as though Trump was taking on Sanders. Both sides are doing their best to express empathy with voters who feel they’ve been screwed. Labor prefers to rail against tax cuts for billionaires and banks. For the government, this week, it was immigration that was to blame.

Not that Labor is prepared to be left out of the immigration auction. Anthony Albanese said the migration cut was “a good result, if there is more integrity in the system”. Shorten tried to shift the focus on to the government’s failures to keep other areas of immigration down: “This government does not want to talk about the growing problem of people coming to Australia with temporary work right visas.”

Still, the Coalition was never going to be outdone. Asked by Mitchell whether he believed Melburnians were afraid to go to restaurants because of Sudanese gangs – as Dutton had alleged earlier in the year – Turnbull was clearly caught off guard. Perhaps he would not have planned to go so far. Still, he backed Dutton in – “Well, I’ve heard that from people in Melbourne” – before going on to emphasise the point, saying, “There is real concern about street crime in Melbourne. There is real concern about Sudanese gangs.”

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott was on a similar bandwagon, making his usual point: Coalition conservatives are right, but they could be more aggressive. At the more moderate end, Liberal senator Dean Smith – using the hook that Australia’s population will hit 25 million in August – called for a national inquiry into the population level.

An interesting offshoot of all this is that it seems the Liberals are abandoning one of the dominant beliefs of the Howard era: that maintaining strong borders guarantees strong public support for immigration. And indeed, while boats have largely stopped coming to our shores, the Lowy Institute Poll this year found for the first time that a majority of Australians want immigration to be lower.

Any political professional hoping to get a clear answer to the Trump–Sanders dilemma from the byelections – is it better to blame the rich or the foreigners? – hopes in vain, because no byelection is a clean scientific test. There are too many other factors.

To take just one: this week, Trevor Ruthenberg, Liberal National Party candidate for Longman, was caught out claiming he had been awarded the Australian Service Medal, when in fact he had received the Australian Defence Medal, for having served more than four years in the Defence Forces. He said it had been an innocent mistake and apologised.

To some, this will appear a cardinal sin. To others it will seem trivial. Whatever your view, it may yet be the most influential event in Australian politics this year. In a close byelection, stuff-ups like this can swing the result. If Labor succeeds in Longman, then Shorten’s chances of losing the leadership, say to Anthony Albanese, decrease. In addition, the party will gain back some momentum as it heads towards the federal election.

Turnbull, paradoxically, gains some protection, too. If the LNP loses, he will not only be able to say, “Governments never gain seats in byelections”, but also, “It’s not my fault the candidate messed up”.

There were other headlines as well. The energy wars continued. There was growing controversy over the new national database of health records. Neither dominated the week, but both could yet explode in massive ways. The details of each remain opaque to many, but the potential explosions would be easy enough to understand – climate, because it could split the government, and health privacy because it could expose millions of Australians to discrimination.

There are, unfortunately, many, many Australians who already know the hurt that discrimination can do. In this paper last week, Nyadol Nyuon wrote of the “shameful carelessness of racism” in which Sudanese people are seen as necessary victims of politically useful battles over race. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kristen Hilton, says reports of racist incidents have jumped by “an alarming 34 per cent” in one year. We are talking about kids being bullied at school, people being spat on in public, all because of their skin colour.

Hilton says these problems really took off after Dutton’s restaurant comments earlier in the year. Now the PM has used his soapbox – the tallest in the land – to back those comments in. It is a great pity he did not refuse the chance to use race as a political tool, and repudiate Dutton at the same time – but why hope for two unicorns, when even one would be a gift?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 21, 2018 as "Turnbull backs in the race favourite".

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Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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