The announcement that a new maternity hospital in Dublin may be managed by a religious order is generating much disquiet in Ireland; but here in secular Australia, a more secular controversy about this country's proposed immigration reforms is raging.
Last week, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a tightening of the criteria for migrants seeking to become Australian citizens. Turnbull's surprise announcement comes hot on the heels of the government's decision to overhaulall the 457-skilled migrant visa scheme.In a throwback to the 1950s White Australia immigration policy, top of Turnbull's list is a requirement that all would-be migrants have a good command of the Queen's English. In other words, making it more difficult for those who live in non-English speaking countries to achieve citizenship.
The Prime Minister’s surprise announcement has been greeted with incredulity and many believe he is merely pandering to the hard-right wing of his party. For some time now, Turnbull’s government has been lagging well behind in the polls, and Turnbull needs to shore up as much support as he can muster.
Modern Australia with its rich multicultural history owes much to the heroic labours of post-World War II migration so this response is unsurprising. Perhaps more predictable is One Nation's Pauline Hanson tweeting that the prime minister's announcement is vindicating what her minority party has been calling for all along.
On social media, Turnbull has been called out for giving the green light to racism by stealth. Many commentators are suggesting he is cynically trying to mirror some of the successful populist slogans of Donald Trump – and that he is flaming the fears and prejudices of many Australians.
Domestically, Turnbull’s conservative government has shown little inclination to address the vexed issue of housing affordability. Entry into the Australian housing market, considered a rite of passage by generations, is now well and truly beyond the reach of many would-be home purchasers.
The median house price in Melbourne is $850,000 and Sydney’s is expected to hit $1m by the end of this year. Speculation about a housing bubble comes and goes and house prices continue to sky-rocket. Mr Turnbull’s blasé suggestion that parents simply chip in for their children’s deposit has given the impression that he is out of touch with the average Australian.
Nor does Turnbull seem to care that most of the large corporations in Australia pay little or no tax. A recent decision to slash penalty rates for hospitality workers has hit some of the country’s lowest wage earners hard.
With a less than enviable track record on renewable energy and environmental issues, Mr Turnbull is also facing a backlash for supporting the development of the Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland. Despite the mine’s likely negative impact on the Great Artesian Basin and the already imperilled Great Barrier Reef, Turnbull is proposing to lend $1billion to an Indian businessman to enable the export of coal from the site to India. A recently announced in-principle agreement to allow the extraction of unlimited water for 60 years from the Artesian Basin, which runs from Queensland to South Australia, is causing outrage among environmentalists and farmers.
Dubbed Mr Harbourside Mansion by the opposition leader Bill Shorten, a former union leader with a penchant for soundbites and zingers: the fact that Mr Turnbull is a multimillionaire living in a property overlooking Sydney harbour, worth an estimated $15 million/€10.2 million, doesn’t endear him to many Australians.
In an ironic twist, Turnbull is now more unpopular than his predecessor, the man he deposed – the ardent monarchist and gaffe-prone Tony Abbott. The pugnacious Abbott is still seething after his prime ministership was terminated prematurely by Turnbull. Abbott is now an outspoken backbencher and, unsurprisingly, one of Turnbull's staunchest critics.
Our prime minister would do well to watch his back. Australian politics is often a brutal arena. Casting suspicion on the integrity of would-be migrants, a particular favourite of conservative politicians, can backfire, as John Howard discovered to his detriment when he lost the 1987 election to Bob Hawke, after he called for a curb in Asian emigration. Howard subsequently resurrected his career and went on to become Australia's second longest reigning prime minister.
But times have changed, if Labor continues to perform well in the polls the well-spoken Turnbull will be banished to the political wilderness. And he may well be spending a lot more time at his Harbourside Mansion before too long.
[ Philip Lynch ]