Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 04:01 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 04:01 | SYDNEY

Tony Abbott has left the building


Sam Roggeveen


8 June 2011 12:00

When it was announced that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would speak at the Lowy Institute this morning on border protection, my heart sank a little. Is there no end to the cynical abuse of our relatively minor boat people problem as a cudgel with which to beat the Government?

But with Abbott having just finished his remarks about an hour ago, I find myself relieved. It was a morally serious speech. Abbott did not demagogue the issue, did not demonise the asylum seekers, and made the obvious but often neglected point that, when all the options are bad, governments must choose the lesser evil.

There was too much ideological warfare for my taste (why does Abbott insist on re-fighting the Howard era culture wars?) and some calculated politicking: Abbott says he will visit Nauru 'to establish beyond any shadow of doubt that Nauru remains ready, willing and able to take illegal arrivals from Australia.' It seems unlikely that he would need to travel personally to Nauru for this purpose; the more obvious reason is that it is an excellent photo-op.

One thing Abbott did not do was match Prime Minister Gillard's acknowledgment of the scale of the boat people problem, made when she spoke here last year: the context of our migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is very, very minor. It is less than 1.5 per cent of permanent migrants each year; and indeed it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival.

But Abbott did implicitly address this point by arguing that public support for legal immigration is closely tied to how it views the Government's performance on illegal immigration. Abbott went nowhere near endorsing a 'big Australia', but he did argue that a strong border protection policy was a pre-condition for higher immigration. He also said he supported a lifting of our refugee intake.

One historical footnote: Abbott quoted former Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell's notoriously racist statement that 'two Wongs don't make a white'. But Calwell was misquoted.