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Political commentator discusses the views of the Government, Opposition and business on immigration.

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PETER THOMPSON:   This week’s decision to deport some 450 Sri Lankans has re-opened the immigration debate in Australia.  While business, big and small, has been pushing for more immigration, there’s a consensus within the Liberal Party and certain sections of Labor that immigration shouldn’t be increased.  Gerard Henderson has been following this long debate, and he’s with us now in Sydney.


Gerard, good morning.


GERARD HENDERSON:   Good morning, Peter.


PETER THOMPSON: Why have the Sri Lankans been ordered to leave Australia?


GERARD HENDERSON:   Well, I think there’s a feeling in the Government that they don’t fulfil the asylum requirements, but I think more importantly it’s a symbol of a government that’s getting pretty tough on immigration;  and the Prime Minister gave an address in Brisbane last weekend where he spoke to the Ethnic Communities Council and indicated there that the Government is going to take a pretty tough line on immigration.


Now, there’s some support for this within sections of the Labor Party, but not at Kim Beazley’s level.  But, I mean, the Prime Minister and Philip Ruddock and Nick Minchin are running a pretty tough line on immigration at the moment.


PETER THOMPSON:   On the other hand, the business community wants more immigration.  I suppose they see it as an expanding domestic market.


GERARD HENDERSON:   Well, I think there’s an interesting clash coming here.  Stan Wallis was interviewed on Business Sunday last weekend, and he indicated there that the Business Council in recent times - he’s the chairman of the Business Council - had undertaken tax reform, had looked at labour market reform, and what he then said was that they’re going to go on and look at immigration.  And he made a very interesting comment, and he said that it’s absolute nonsense to believe that this country can’t support a population significantly higher, and that’s what we need.  And he went to say otherwise the Australian corporate sector is just going to go offshore.


So, from a very senior business figure like Stan Wallis that’s a very strong statement.  Now, Stan Wallis represents, in a sense, big business in Australia, but Robert Gerard from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who represents some big business but essentially middle-level business in Australia, has also made a statement calling for higher immigration.  And earlier this week, writing in the Melbourne Age, Ross Wilson, the influential Melbourne businessman, wrote an article where he said Australia needs a bigger local market and he said an important part of that was immigration.  And Ross Wilson said that the Government needs to recognise this and to lead a sensible debate on this issue.


So what you have there is three very senior business figures - Stan Wallis, Robert Gerard, Ross Wilson - within the last week calling on the Government to not only lead a sensible debate on this but move in the direction of looking to take in more migrants not fewer migrants.


PETER THOMPSON: Well, it’s a first-class dilemma for the Liberal Party because on the one hand its business constituency is saying one thing, but it’s getting signals in another direction, presumably from its sensing of what the community wants on this.


GERARD HENDERSON:   I think there’s a feeling there and I think John Howard and Nick Minchin represent that kind of view.  On the other hand, there are senior figures in the Liberal Party - Jeff Kennett in Victoria, but Peter Costello at a Federal level, and I think to some extent Peter Reith - who in a sense support a higher immigration agenda.  I’m not saying they do so specifically, but in a general sense they do.  They don’t often address these issues, but when they do take questions on these issues they indicate that that’s their position.


PETER THOMPSON: The Labor Party - where does it stand these days?


GERARD HENDERSON:   Well, Labor is divided.  Kim Beazley indicated before the election….


PETER THOMPSON:   It’s divided too?


GERARD HENDERSON:   Well, yes.  Kim Beazley indicated before the election that he felt that Australia had to look seriously at taking more migrants, but he didn’t say we could do it in the immediate short term, but he indicated in the medium term that’s what we should do.


PETER THOMPSON: The sensitivity on the Labor side is mostly about employment opportunities.


GERARD HENDERSON:   Yes, it is.  That’s right.  But people like Martin Ferguson who comes, as you know, from a trade union background, and now people like Mark Latham are saying that … are running a line that’s pretty close to the Government’s.  So, Labor is divided but the leadership of Labor is … I mean, Kim Beazley’s position is closer to Jeff Kennett’s position than it is to John Howard’s position.


So, you’ve got divisions on both sides;  but, I mean, this Government here, as we all know, is here for the next three years and perhaps beyond.  So, if business has got a complaint about immigration, it’s going to be with the Federal Liberal Party.


PETER THOMPSON:   Now, as we know, One Nation didn’t win one Lower House seat, but nevertheless it’s really had quite a role in influencing both sides on this, hasn’t it?


GERARD HENDERSON:   Yes, I think it has.  I think there’s a feeling that out there there’s a huge constituency for opposing immigration, and to some extent there probably is;  but if you look at how immigrants adapt very readily into this society, I’m not so sure that it is such a big issue.


It wasn’t an issue in the last election campaign and I doubt that it will be an issue in the next election campaign, but certainly Stan Wallis is saying that the business community is going to work this into an issue.


PETER THOMPSON: Gerard, thanks very much.