Paul Bongiorno: Dutton’s bullhorn, rather than a dog whistle, drowns out the budget roadshow

Peter Dutton has embarked on a divisive strategy of making migrants scapegoats for the cost-of-living crisis.

Peter Dutton has embarked on a divisive strategy of making migrants scapegoats for the cost-of-living crisis. Photos: TND/Getty

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is determined not to die wondering when the election is held some time in the next 12 months.

He has embarked on a divisive and dangerous strategy of making migrants scapegoats for the cost-of-living crisis, leveraging deep-seated prejudices in the community.

The temptation of tying long-festering housing shortages to foreigners was too beguiling to ignore, but Dutton didn’t leave it there.

He piled upon their heads everything from traffic congestion, to bottlenecks in the health system, the difficulty of getting kids into child care or school, and any other problem frustrating Australians.

The promise is to slash migration and, all of a sudden, thousands of houses will be “freed up” – he claims 40,000, apparently based on the fact he will cut immigration by 45,000 a year.

Numbers game

How that works as, Alan Kohler wonders in his The New Daily analysis, is anybody’s guess – along the lines of each new arrival would have grabbed a house each.

It’s very convenient. You don’t need to come up with a costed policy on how many houses you would build or what incentives you would use to get the market to do it.

The contrast with the government’s budget is stark.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says there was more investment in housing in his budget “than all nine of our predecessors’ budgets combined – $6 billion in new money as part of a $32 billion in housing”.

No one can doubt migration is a hot button issue, nor that managing the intake is the prerogative – indeed the duty – of government.

Indeed, Labor is proposing to halve the migrant intake from the record post-Covid numbers actively encouraged by the Morrison government, which contributed to the biggest migration program in our country’s history.

Dutton spruiks the number of 1.67 million migrants over five years, hanging them all on Albanese – disingenuously ignoring that for the early years the Liberals were in charge and Labor has already begun restricting visas.

Lip service

It is not a debate about the size of the program that is the issue, but rather the demonising of new arrivals as people who want to eat our lunch, take our jobs and beat us to shelter.

What should not be missed is the multicultural, multiracial nature of our immigration cohort in 2024, as distinct from the European migrant waves in the 1950s.

Dutton says he admires the success of Australia’s ability to integrate newcomers into a multicultural community, but it is only lip service when he never misses an opportunity to pit “Australian citizens” against new arrivals.

The biggest villains apparently are the major metropolitan universities, with Dutton singling out the University of Sydney. Some 47 per cent of its student body is international students, contributing to the university’s income of $1.4 billion last year.

The Opposition Leader says he doesn’t have any problem “with international students, but I want homes in our country to be taken up first by Australian citizens and by Australian students and elderly Australians who at the moment are living in the back of a car or living in a tent”.

International education is a top export-earner at close to $50 billion in latest figures.

Labor is introducing caps on student intakes that universities can exceed if they provide housing. But what Labor is not doing is fanning prejudice and resentment against the tens of thousands of predominantly Indian, Chinese and Asians who pay big money to come to our institutes of learning.

Race to the bottom

Race will be played overtly and covertly by the Coalition in an attempt to leverage a victory much in the same way John Howard was able to do mobilising anti-Middle Eastern asylum seeker sentiment in 2001.

Dutton would be thrilled at the way he has been able to cut through using not so much a dog whistle but a bullhorn that has gone a long way to drown out Albanese and Chalmers’ post-budget roadshow.

Even so, the government is taking encouragement from the slew of opinion polls since the budget was released – sure, no spectacular bounce but an overall positive result with the respected Newspoll showing a lift for Labor with a two-party-preferred result of 52-48.

Polling analyst Kevin Bonham has the aggregate of the five polls published at 51.2 for Labor to 48.8 for the Coalition, a slight lift from the pre-budget aggregates.

And an indication that the government was getting some early cut-through on its key measures came in a YouGov poll for the ABC. It found 52 per cent unprompted had heard of the $300 energy bill relief or the tax cuts.

The government is counting on this recognition to translate into voting intention support when these measures actually start applying after July in numbers to checkmate the opposition’s brazen campaign.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.

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