(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There’s been a dog that didn’t bark in the campaign leading up to Saturday’s Australian election: immigration.

Polling season in Australia is traditionally a time to whip up xenophobia. Former Prime Minister John Howard won the 2001 election for his right-of-center Liberal party largely on the basis of a trumped-up scare campaign about asylum seekers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In 2013, his Labor successor Kevin Rudd restarted the country’s brutal policy of offshore refugee processing in the months leading up to the polls.

That’s not happened this time.

In the Sydney electorates of former Liberal Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, independent candidates pushing a more humane line on refugees appear to be winning strong support. A promise by current Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison to cap migration numbers landed with remarkably little fanfare, and failed to draw a competing pledge from Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten. Shorten has also promised to end indefinite offshore detention of refugees and increase the country’s refugee intake.

At a time when much of the world is being increasingly consumed by anti-immigrant sentiment and President Donald Trump is unveiling a points-based skilled migration program that seems to be fashioned on the Australian model, things down under appear to be going in the opposite direction.

That’s quite a change. A push to stop immigration from Asia was in large part the reason the country became independent from the British Empire in 1901; the racist White Australia policy was one of the first orders of business of the new government and persisted, in one form or another, until 1973.

A decade later, then-opposition leader Howard led a scare campaign against Asian migrants (the riposte from former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who died this week, still merits a read). A decade after that, far-right firebrand Pauline Hanson embarked on a political career that’s now put her in the Senate.

The media, from News Corp.-owned newspapers to Nine Entertainment Co.’s radio stations and CBS Corp.’s television programs, still host regular outbursts. Blair Cottrell, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler, has received respectful interviews on state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. and News Corp.-owned television stations. The man charged in relation to the 51 murders in March’s shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand is an Australian supporter of Cottrell. The political class is far from immune.

Yet through all that, Australia has genuinely changed, and for the better. Among large countries, it has the largest foreign-born population share after Saudi Arabia, at 28 percent; half of the country has at least one foreign-born parent. Australia is now more diverse globally, too, with about a quarter of people now having roots outside Europe.

It’s notably comfortable with its status as a multicultural society, too: Among 18 countries surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center, only Canadians held a more positive view of immigration, and two-thirds of Australians said migrants make the country stronger. Four out of five believe migrants improve Australia’s economy and its society, according to a 2018 survey for the Scanlon Foundation.

What are the lessons? For one thing, the xenophobic outbursts of previous generations have a habit of fading from memory. Three decades after Howard played on fears about immigration, almost one in 10 Liberal candidates for the governing House of Representatives are from Asian backgrounds this year. 

Another point is that politicians have to speak up for migration, and foster the economic growth that makes populations more likely to accept it. It can’t hurt that Australia’s most recent migration wave has come against the backdrop of almost 28 recession-free years.

A third is to avoid unnecessary flash points. Most people have only vague ideas of how many people come to their country, or even what a migrant is – overestimating the share of refugees and the numbers coming over land and sea, and vastly underestimating movements of students and workers(1) through airports.

That means migration caps, which create a sense of disorder when they inevitably fail, are likely to make the situation even worse. Labor’s proposal to gradually increase the country’s refugee intake to 32,000 is a small step in the right direction for one of the least-recognized, and most pernicious, aspects of the country’s migration policy.

It’s probably best to accept that roughly a third of the population in most rich countries will tend to oppose immigration, while another third will always be in favor. The way to ensure a humane policy is to ensure that the middle third see population movement as a social phenomenon that can expand and benefit their own communities.



(1) Full disclosure: I'm a migrant to Australia from the U.K., having first come here for work in 2002.

To contact the author of this story: David Fickling at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net

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David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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