Pretty much everything said and done in the Parliament over the next fortnight will be done with an eye to how it plays out in the Canning by-election.
It’s an understandable preoccupation, given the poll is being depicted as the ultimate test of Tony Abbott’s leadership. And if the voters of Canning remain as unimpressed with the PM and his Government as the rest of the nation appears to be, Abbott is headed for turbulent times.
The PM won’t go down without a fight, quite literally, and will ask Cabinet this week to sign off on Australia joining the US air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
This chest-beating exercise would normally be a vote-winner for the Government, but it has become complicated by the response of the Australian community to the plight of the Syrian people fleeing the death and destruction that wracks their nation; the very same devastation to which Australian fighter jets will soon contribute.
Even with the emergence of the heart-rending imagery of the Syrians’ flight, the PM might have been tempted to stall any decision to accept more refugees from the region until after the Canning poll, given that Australians have recently shown more antipathy than empathy to asylum seekers.
But Abbott was left with little choice once Australia’s most popular politician, NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird, and other Liberals made it clear that Australia needed to do more. So the PM has done some fancy footwork, accepting the need for Australia to take in more asylum seekers from Syria, but emphasising this will not increase the overall number of refugees resettled in Australia.
In case the voters of Canning missed the nuance of this commitment, which is to avoid offending voters who oppose any increase in Australia’s refugee intake, the Western Australian newspaper made it clear, stating:
Tony Abbott is unwilling to increase Australia’s overall refugee intake beyond an already planned rise, instead of just making more places available for Syrians at the expense of other nationalities under the existing 13,750 cap.
Abbott will be hoping this commitment, along with sending Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the United Nations to offer “assistance”, will neutralise (or at least quieten) voters’ humanitarian concerns about Syria so that they can focus instead on the terrorism-busting benefits of blasting the nation to smithereens.
This is because the war on terror is pretty much the only thing left going for the Abbott Government as it prosecutes its case in Canning. The Coalition’s only other natural strength, a reputation for superior economic management, has taken a beating in the West following the economic downturn that occurred there under the state Liberal Government’s watch.
And while much of Western Australia has an unemployment rate less than the national average, the Mandurah region in Canning has almost double the national unemployment rate at 10.8 per cent. This has created the unusual situation where federal Labor is campaigning in the by-election on an issue that has traditionally been the Coalition’s strength, namely jobs.
Along with the union movement, to which Labor Leader Bill Shorten owes a few favours, the Opposition is using foreign worker permits under the yet-to-be-ratified free trade agreement with China to whip up voter anxiety about job availability and further undercut the Abbott Government’s standing with voters.
Some of Shorten’s colleagues are disconcerted, however, by the Opposition Leader’s apparent willingness to trash an important trade deal for political expediency.
Labor-aligned columnist Troy Bramston writes in The Australian today that former Labor PM Bob Hawke said opposing ChAFTA was “against Australia’s best interests”, and that these sentiments had been echoed by most of the Labor state premiers. Bramston also lists other Labor supporters of the trade deal, which include Bob Carr, John Brumby, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Luke Foley and Peter Beattie.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely Shorten will back down from this xenophobia-tinged campaign until the Canning poll is decided.
His colleagues may feel, as Bramston suggests, that this approach puts Labor “at risk of trashing its legacy on free trade and forging the modern Australia-China relationship” but Shorten’s priority is clearly to deliver support for the unions who delivered for him at national conference, and to give Abbott a mighty scare in Canning.
And with the parliamentary vote to ratify CHAFTA not expected until after the by-election, there is scope for the Labor Leader to come back to the fold if he so chooses.
Clearly, the Prime Minister has more to lose from the Canning outcome than the Opposition Leader, but both men have stooped to either whipping up foreigner-anxiety or appeasing xenophobia in order to maximise their party’s vote.
Western Australian voters will have been observing this at close range for the past fortnight, and now it is our turn to see the unedifying spectacle writ large on the national stage. Regrettably only those who live in Canning have the chance to do something about this sorry state of political affairs. The rest of us must wait until next year’s election.