Tony Abbott’s leadership is being put to the test over the issues of immigration and multiculturalism; but for the moment it is a test of endurance and judgment rather than one placing real question marks over his support base.
Despite hyperventilated reporting by the media, the “divisions” inside the Liberal Party are being driven largely by a small group of troublemakers whose political careers would be finished should Mr Abbott become prime minister.
The identities of these backbench MPs are well known amongst their colleagues. In simple terms, they need Malcolm Turnbull’s patronage to advance. The recent leaking is most likely to have come from this group.
Then there is an even smaller group of Liberal MPs who have been consistently outspoken on asylum-seeker issues since the Howard era.
The latter group includes Victorian MP Russell Broadbent, Western Australian MP Judi Moylan and soon-to-be-retired Victorian Senator Judith Troeth. The former outspoken leader of this clique, Petro Georgiou, retired at the last election.
The vast majority of Coalition MPs back the Coalition’s position on asylum-seekers and Mr Abbott as leader.
At the same time, there are some in the party who are urging an even tougher stance on immigration, including restricting the growing number of Muslim immigrants to Australia.
The genesis of the re-opening of wounds on the asylum-seeker issue over recent weeks followed the ill-timed remarks from Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison.
Mr Morrison had questioned the use of taxpayer-funded flights for asylum-seeker families to travel from Christmas Island to Sydney to attend the burial of family members, who had drowned attempting to reach sanctuary in Australia.
The criticism may have been warranted, but with television pictures of grieving children at the graveside, they appeared insensitive. Both Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison have acknowledged the mistake.
However, the essence of Mr Morrison’s queries has not altered, nor the necessity of asking whether it is the Australian Government’s role to pay for peoples’ travel to funerals. It is not a widespread privilege granted to other Australians who have been the victim of terrible tragedies, including government mistakes.
Asked by the ABC what price government should pay, Senator Barnaby Joyce declared: “Compassion is not limitless.”
However, South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi raised the temperature of the debate even further when he suggested that the government may need to rein in the numbers of Muslim immigrants coming to Australia because it was putting the nation’s social cohesion at risk.
In fact, he turned on the question of Islam itself.
“Islam itself is the problem, not Muslims,” Senator Bernardi said in a radio interview. (See Cory Bernardi’s article, “The failure of multiculturalism”, in this issue of News Weekly).
The Labor Party, which has been bleeding on the asylum-seeker issue for the better part of two years, saw its chance for payback.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen pounced on the words, accusing Mr Abbott of condoning religious intolerance, a stance he claimed would not have been taken by Liberal leaders from Robert Menzies and Harold Holt through to Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson.
The Labor Party has also fuelled exaggerated reports that One Nation was writing Liberal Party policy. This is a nonsense and more likely a ploy by the remnants of One Nation, which has undergone half a dozen reincarnations since Pauline Hanson, seeking to make itself relevant.
The fact remains there have been 200 illegal boats and 10,000 illegal entrants who have arrived in Australian waters by boat since the Rudd Government watered down the former Howard Government’s rules on illegal boat arrivals.
Mr Morrison has also claimed that one in 10 Afghans applying outside Australia got a protection visa, while Afghans arriving by boat had a 96 per cent chance of getting a visa.
The Labor Party has done a poor job in administering the immigration portfolio since it took power and its policy has been at best confusing, vacillating between taking a tough public stance while keeping the back door wide open.
Mr Bowen has been embarrassed by recent reports that more than 1,000 illegal immigrant children remain incarcerated despite promises that such policies would cease under Labor.
On the wider question of Muslim immigration, Mr Abbott appears not to want to enter into this debate. He knows the issue is dynamite in the community, but would open up a massive counter-response from the Labor Party.
“Australia is the world’s most successful immigrant society,” Mr Abbott told his party room.
“The Coalition fully supports a multicultural Australia and the Coalition will always support a non-discriminatory immigration policy.”
Despite a number of European nations and political parties seeking to restrict or curtail Muslim immigration, the number of Muslims in Australia is proportionately still much smaller though this will eventually change as the numbers grow.
Clearly, Mr Abbott has drawn a line in the sand on the issue. Nevertheless, there is still fertile ground for the Opposition to pursue the Government on its renewed enthusiasm for multiculturalism and its failures to properly protect Australia’s borders.
In the meantime, Mr Abbott should concentrate on pulling the malcontents into line.