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Dutton after Manus: the anti-migrant rubber hits the road

In 2016, I wrote this piece about how Australian politicians have managed to mostly deflect the population's more or less standard anti-immigration sentiments into an unusually poisonous debate about refugees rather than one about the broader migration programme. Some of the conclusions I gestured at were, in retrospect, pointlessly speculative. But the dynamic is an interesting one.

It's not actually so unique: the same political idea is one reason Republicans in the US - before Trump - responded to their base's nativism with moves against irregular immigrants rather than doing anything to shrink the large legal intake. Tony Blair, too, talked tough about asylum seekers while overseeing a dramatic increase in immigration to the UK. The gambit was only ever partially successful in those countries. By 2010 the British government was dedicating itself to slashing immigration by more than half; when they failed - well, we know what happened in 2016, in the UK as well as America, where the president now supports a bill to dramatically cut back on family migration.

Australia has squeezed more life from the one weird trick, thanks either to better political management or an unusually high tolerance for cruelty to asylum seekers. (Probably both.) But now the rubber is hitting the road there, too. There is not really so far you can go after you've cut off power and water to a refugee detention centre, blamed them for it, removed them by force, lied about the whole thing throughout, and said the refugees will eventually admit it was all great.

Of course there are countless points in the last seventeen years where you might have said it can't get much worse and been proved horribly wrong. The way you can really tell it's happening is that Peter Dutton - once immigration minister, now much more serious sounding Home Affairs Minister - used to go on 2GB radio in Sydney every Thursday to rail about refugees (1, 2, 3), and now he goes on to rail about 'African crime'.

There are plenty of things going on here. Victoria is the most progressive state in the country, which makes it always ripe for this kind of attack. The state election in November adds to that bread-and-butter have-a-go-at-Labor element of things. But it's also clearly a sign that the government wants to keep migration issues, which have been key to most of their recent electoral successes, high on the agenda. Starting a fact-free blowup over migrant crime is one way of doing that, but it's very unlikely to be the only thing.

I'd bet, first and foremost, that the government will announce more changes to the migration programme, probably including a cut to numbers. This isn't something the Liberal Party has really wanted to do recently, but things are lining up. Conservative commentators are starting to push back against the rarely-challenged idea that the expansion of the migrant intake in the last twenty years has been a huge economic success. The Productivity Commission has done some more nuanced work which will let less culture-war-inclined members of the government convince themselves that their changes are careful and sensible.  And Tony Abbott wants immigrant numbers to be reduced, which is not any kind of recommendation but does fit with PM Turnbull's seemingly limitless capacity to cave to his party's far-right flank.

The hope is that the government has run out of ways to abuse the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, whose numbers are now gradually dwindling as the US resettlement deal trickles along. The downside is that it'll probably give way to a much broader fight about immigration - and though this is a topic for another time, I don't think that's a fight the left is at all prepared for.