Nick Cater writes in The Australian:
If there is a case for making Bill Shorten prime minister, Kristina Keneally didn’t make it in one of the lowest-rent Labor campaigns it has been our misfortune to endure.
Keneally stuck mechanically to scripted sound bites in the Bennelong by-election, planting the unnerving thought that the replacement of politicians with robots might not be far away.
In one sunlit press conference after another she accused Malcolm Turnbull of crimes hitherto blamed on Labor prime ministers who have since fled.
Malcolm Turnbull, she insisted, should be held to account for the underwhelming, over-subsidised National Broadband Network, hatched by Kevin Rudd, and the dreamy Labor interventions that are playing havoc with the National Energy Market.
Tony Burke reflected on Sunday that Labor needed to work harder on its policies to win the next federal election. He can say that again.
Saturday’s result in Bennelong offers further evidence that Labor won’t win the 2019 election by blame shifting. Neither will it win with identity politics. The race card achieved little for Labor last Saturday beyond reinforcing the party’s reputation for mishandling the politics of immigration.
Bennelong’s Chinese and Korean-born population has grown from 16 per cent to 23 per cent since John Howard lost the seat in 2007. One in four residents in Eastwood and Epping has migrated in the past 10 years.
Labor conceitedly imagines it owns the migrant vote. Yet the effect of Shorten’s allegations of rampant China-phobia in the Turnbull government, and Keneally’s attempts to link John Alexander to One Nation, was marginal at best.
Marrying census data with results from individual booths is an inexact science and the evidence is more equivocal than some would suggest, but the first-preference swing against the Coalition in two of the three booths in Eastwood, where Chinese-born voters are about 25 per cent of the population, was close to the constituency average. The same was true for most booths in Epping, where the Chinese-born population is 19 per cent. The biggest swing against the government — 15 per cent — was in Gladesville North, where the Chinese-born population is less than 6 per cent.
The newcomers weakening the Coalition’s grip on Bennelong are not migrants but millennials. Labor won comfortably in the booth closest to Macquarie University and in Meadowbank, an enclave for aspirational hipsters where people aged under 35 outnumber baby boomers by almost four to one.
In Bennelong, like everywhere else in Australia, age and education are the strongest voting determinants. That should serve the Liberal and National parties well, as the population bubble and the miracles of medical science swell the ranks of the over 55s.
It is this constituency that the Labor Party risks irritating most by chasing the support of sectional groups at the expense of the national interest.
Labor is profoundly conflicted on immigration, as the party has been for much of its life. As Shorten acknowledged in his recent parliamentary tribute to Harold Holt, the abolition of White Australia occurred under the Liberal Party.
Holt’s opponent at the 1966 election, Arthur Calwell, resisted the change, explaining later that this was not because of colour, “but because we feared interference with our living standards by unintegratable minorities”. Calwell, who had opposed granting visas to Japanese war brides a decade earlier, is seldom mentioned in polite Labor circles these days.
Calwell, like almost every politician at the time, was nervous about strains to the social fabric that culturally diverse immigrants might create. He had reason to be concerned. In 1967, when Holt began dismantling Australia’s discriminatory migration policy, there were 159 race riots in the US. British migrants to Australia were telling journalists they had come to escape “the colour problem”.
One can only admire Holt’s courage in pressing reform that had little political upside and carried considerable risk. Labor, by comparison, succumbed to populism and the pressure of the union movement, which had been united in its opposition to Asian migration since its formation in the late 19th century.
The portrayal of Gough Whitlam as the moderniser who put an end to racist policies has become an article of faith in the Labor Party, despite its patent untruth.
As late as 1971 Gough Whitlam was being warned by his strategists that “immigration was a potential disaster for Labor”. Whitlam took the message on board. Everybody remembers the slogan “It’s Time” in his 1972 election speech. Less celebrated is his pledge in his campaign launch to “stop the drift away from Australia” and give Australians “a real say in the composition of the population”.
Even after Whitlam’s conversion in office to multiculturalism, he continued to play race politics badly, assuming — incorrectly as it proved — that prejudice was ingrained in the native population.
The ill-judged Racial Discrimination Act, which achieved assent in Whitlam’s final fortnight in office, was a measure to protect the social fabric every bit as clumsy as the White Australia policy, which disappeared from Labor’s platform eight years earlier.
Today, Labor again misjudges the historical moment with its narrative of cultural inclusion. Casting migrants as victims in need of protection from subterranean racism is a philosophy that works for the Greens, whose supporters draw Pharisaic pride from looking down on Australians less virtuous than themselves.
A serious party seeking a popular mandate, however, can ill afford to infantilise migrants and demonise their hosts.
Few migrants regard themselves as helpless. No migrant comes to Australia for the protection afforded under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a pernicious piece of legislation that Labor continues to support, despite its repressive application by unaccountable bureaucrats.
On the contrary, most come for the economic freedom that gives them the opportunity to prosper and the equality of opportunity afforded every migrant since the convict era.
The last word goes to Calwell, who was wrong about race but right about Labor. Slowly but surely, he predicted, shortly before his death in the early 1970s, it was abandoning common sense and becoming “a muddle-minded, middle class, petit-bourgeois, status-seeking party”.