“Australia would likely have remained a much smaller country had it been left up to the people. As George Megalogenis has put it, “immigration is the defining issue in the battle of wills between politicians and the polls, because voters, if given the chance, will always prefer fewer arrivals”. Right now, polling consistently shows that 40–50% of Australians think immigration rates are too high, while only 5–10% think they’re too low. Two decades ago, opposition to immigration was much more fierce. On some polling, desire for it to be stopped altogether reached as high as 70%. When Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott each established “small Australia” policies in 2010, they were altering a bipartisan position that had led to a sustained period of high immigration. They also weren’t alone – economic uncertainty has made immigration more electorally problematic all over the world.
Did Australians accept relatively high levels of immigration for so long because they’re tolerant? Australians themselves don’t think so – half think we’re a racist country. Instead, Paul Keating invented a strategy that was then expanded and perfected by John Howard: placate the business community with high levels of immigration, and crack down on asylum seekers to create the appearance of control. Kevin Rudd’s alteration of this gambit caused extreme anxiety among his colleagues.”