Election rivals exploit refugee fears in Australia

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Nicola Roxon, the Labour MP for Gellibrand, is usually a passionate advocate of multiculturalism. Her constituency in Melbourne's western suburbs has been a first port of call for migrants since the 1950s and is home to more than 100 nationalities. But for the past month Ms Roxon has been strangely silent.

She is not alone. With both main parties seeking to woo voters in tomorrow's general election by exploiting public fears over refugees, political debate has been gagged.

Just two MPs – one from Labour, one from the ruling Liberals – have questioned the hardline stance of their respective parties; they were persuaded to step back into line.

Asylum-seekers have provided the backdrop to the election campaign, which officially started five weeks ago but in reality began in August when the government of John Howard, the Prime Minister, took the audacious decision to turn away 433 Afghans rescued in the Indian Ocean by a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa.

Mr Howard, who had been trailing in the polls because of tax reforms and high fuel prices, watched his popularity skyrocket and knew this was an issue that could save his political skin. He sent warships to patrol the coastline; boat people who managed to reach Australia were dispersed around the South Pacific for processing.

These steps were endorsed by Kim Beazley, the Labour leader, who presumably decided he could not afford to take a more principled stand so close to an election. He boasted of Labour's own tough credentials, reminding voters it was his party that introduced the policy of detaining asylum-seekers in grim Outback camps.

Not until this week was the ugly political consensus finally challenged, with church leaders, academics and former senior politicians condemning the parties for pandering to the electorate's basest instincts.

Malcolm Fraser, a Liberal former prime minister, said "the poor, the destitute, those seeking to flee hunger, brutality and tyranny" were being victimised.

Ian George, Archbishop of Adelaide, said inhumane policies towards asylum-seekers – who come mainly from Afghanistan and the Middle East – were "destroying our international reputation, brutalising people's attitudes and making us a less compassionate people".

Their dismay was echoed in Footscray, the bustling, working-class neighbourhood at the heart of Gellibrand, where post-war immigrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia were followed by Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and, most recently, by those from war-torn African nations.

At the Migrant Resource Centre, Sohara Hassanbeed, a young Somalian, expressed her disappointment. "The government should let the boat people in; there are problems in their countries," she said in halting English. John Patsikatheodorou, the centre's director, said: "The rhetoric is all about egalitarianism, the land of the fair go. The reality is that Australia is not like that."

In Footscray Market, Owen He recalled the warm welcome he received when he arrived from Shanghai and said boat people should be greeted in the same spirit of friendship. "They're human beings; it doesn't matter where they're from," said Mr He, who sells pet supplies. "We are a land of freedom and multiculture. We should protect them."

While the polls suggest tomorrow's result will be finely balanced, there is little doubt Mr Howard has succeeded in winning back voters who defected to Pauline Hanson's xenophobic One Nation party at the last election.

Mrs Hanson, who attracted one million votes in 1998, has been addressing near-empty meetings in Queensland. With her views now part of the political mainstream, her fortunes have faded. She has accused Mr Howard of stealing her policies.

Throughout the campaign, Mr Howard and his ministers have portrayed asylum-seekers as criminals. One boatload was said to have thrown children into the ocean, a version of events disputed by the navy.

The low point came when Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, said 350 refugees hoping to land in Australia who drowned after boarding an unseaworthy Indonesian vessel had brought their fate upon themselves.