Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, getting his house in order before the election, has played to the politics of fear and xenophobia with his plan to exile asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.
By denying those who survive the boat journey from Indonesia any hope of ever being accepted as refugees in Australia, he has improved his standing among the large number of voters who believe asylum seekers undermine national values and security.
This was clear in the Australian's Newspoll yesterday. Conducted immediately after Rudd announced that PNG would take all those meeting the criteria of the Refugee Convention - and deport or indefinitely detain the rest - the poll found Labor's credibility on dealing with the boats had soared 6 percentage points.
Political and media focus on the continued flow of boats arriving at Christmas Island, the tragedies of hundreds drowned during the perilous Indian Ocean crossing, and a persistent mythology surrounding asylum seekers have played to long-standing fears and prejudice.
Yet while racism exists, Australia is not a racist society. It has accepted and adopted millions of migrants, many of them arriving as refugees after World War II.
About one in four Australians were born overseas, and 43 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. A Scanlon Foundation survey found two-thirds of Australians believed immigrants make the nation stronger. They were more positive than North Americans and Europeans about the economic and cultural benefits, but less tolerant of ethnic diversity.
Although acceptance has risen and fallen over the years, Australians have also shown sympathy and concern for asylum seekers.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took in the boatloads arriving after the Vietnam War, and 200,000 others processed in refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Labor successor Bob Hawke gave 42,000 Chinese a permanent home after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But there has always been an undercurrent of unease, an island mentality that can regard outsiders with suspicion and even fear.
The Chinese who arrived during the 1850s gold rush, Pacific Islanders working in the Queensland canefields and Japanese pearl divers faced racist campaigns. The White Australia policy endured until the 1960s.
The rhetoric of the yellow peril, Japanese bombing of the north and the fear of invasion in World War II, and confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s reinforced a sense of insecurity that persists today, reflected in national defence and security policies. Added to this is the size of the country and remoteness of borders that have to be defended.
The frail boats from Indonesia have been rolled into this, more by their visibility than by any real threat. The tens of thousands who have claimed asylum after flying into Australia are overlooked and are not subject to mandatory detention: they remain invisible.
But boats pierce the national psyche. There is a strong sense of violation, that foreigners have decided to live here regardless of what Australians think and of the official process of migration and refugee resettlement - and that the nation has been unable to close its oceanic moat to them.
The boats also offend Australians' sense of fair play. A Monash University study found they were ready to accept asylum seekers and refugees if they had arrived through the proper channels. If they hadn't, and opted for the boats instead, they were not welcome. Only 19 per cent said they should have the right to apply for permanent residence. About 40 per cent wanted the boats turned back or their passengers sent to mandatory detention.
Beyond this is a cocktail of fear and misconception. Australians worry that - especially as the economy declines - their jobs will be taken by outsiders; that welfare and other costs will soar; that Australian culture will be swamped by alien beliefs, customs and social attitudes. Spurred by fears of terrorism and the conviction of a handful of migrants on terror-related charges, they dread violence and instability. They resent radicals railing against their political, religious and social values.
Politicians have turned this to their advantage, and successive studies have shown the tenor of political debate has led public opinion. Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard used the arrival of shipwrecked asylum seekers aboard the freighter Tampa to launch his draconian Pacific Solution and help his return to power in the 1999 election.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has vigorously demonised asylum seekers with his "stop the boats" slogan, adding weight to public demands for Labor to toughen its stand. Labor, under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and now Rudd, has done that. Rudd is also playing to voters' insecurity by claiming that many, if not most, asylum seekers are "economic migrants" posing as refugees. He has no evidence to support the claim, but it has struck a powerful chord in a nation already nervous about its immediate prospects.
Polling the depths
On the handling of the asylum seeker issue, Newspoll found:
* 6 point rise in support for Labor to 26 per cent
* 14 point drop for the Coalition to 33 per cent, compared with February results
* 3 point rise among ALP voters in Sydney's western suburbs
* 21 to 5 per cent drop in Labor supporters who believe the Coalition is best able to handle the task.