BLACKTOWN, Australia (Reuters) - Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare crouches uncomfortably in a suit on the canvas of a youth boxing ring in Sydney’s hardscrabble Western Suburbs, shaping up for the election fight of his life.
Clare, in charge of a border circling 12 million square kilometers of ocean, has the unenviable job of stopping thousands of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia, an issue threatening to bring down Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government at elections just two weeks away.
“People are drowning to get here. It opens up old scars. People say ‘please stop more people drowning’,” says the campaigning Clare, whose wife is from a Vietnamese family who risked their lives to reach Australia following the 1975 fall of Saigon.
Clare grew up in the Western Suburbs, far away from Sydney’s glittering harbor and affluent eastern beachsides, in an area long thought to be a centre-left Labor heartland of blue-collar jobs and traditional manufacturing.
But his humanitarian reasoning does not go far in explaining why Rudd’s minority government is struggling here to avert a September 7 poll rout, with surveys tipping the loss of six election-turning seats, some held for 70 years.
In this traffic-choked home to two million, a crucible of Australian multiculturalism where many are new migrants, soaring living costs, groaning infrastructure and disappearing jobs have badly hurt Labor, along with crime and drive-by shootings helping to fuel feelings of insecurity.
And as voters lose faith in Rudd’s pledge to improve lives through better transport, health and education, they have also grown resentful of new boat people seen as potential security threats, immigration queue jumpers and rivals for jobs.
“The issue plays out in every single possible way. Rumors go around about them getting $50,000 for a car, or welfare, or whatever. The refugees are an easy people to blame,” says local Labor MP Julie Owens.
Immigration has been a political thorn in Australia since its colonial settlement, but more so since the post-World War Two arrival of more than 100,000 non-English speaking Europeans under a government strategy to “populate or perish”.
In a nation then seeing itself as culturally nearer to Europe than Asia, a wave of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants fleeing conflict through the 1970s and 80s also stirred unease.
But when the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States brought increased border protection globally, asylum worries in Australia were shaped into a political spear, helping conservative prime minister John Howard return to power that year with a promise of uncompromising security.
Now, with instability in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran driving refugee numbers globally to near a 20-year high of 45.2 million, asylum boats are again coloring the election race, up with bread and butter issues like the economy and education.
Since Labor swept away Howard’s conservatives six years ago, more than 50,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia, stoking a voter backlash so visceral that Rudd in July promised no one arriving by boat would be permanently settled, being instead sent to live in neighboring Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
Canberra’s approach contrasts with moves by key ally the United States to offer a pathway to citizenship for many of its 11 million illegal immigrants, although European countries have also hardened immigration rules amid global financial woes.
But while Australia’s policy - matching opposition promises of tougher immigration rules - was criticized by the United Nations, political pundits say it could neutralize an issue threatening to send Labor into opposition for a generation.
In the My Hung fabric shop in Sydney’s Cabramatta, an area dubbed “little Saigon” with its myriad noodle shops and migrant families from Vietnam and Cambodia, Thi Duc Diep underscores the problems facing Rudd on Labor’s Sydney “Western Front”.
Located in one of 10 marginal seats held by the government and at risk of loss, almost six in 10 people here were born overseas and average income of $1,030 a week is well short of the national figure, while 10 percent unemployment is roughly double the national average.
Greater Sydney, home to 4.6 million people, is not only one of the most expensive cities to buy property, with home prices soaring 6.1 percent this year to a median $640,000, but surveys put it near Zurich and Geneva as one of the least affordable places to live, a fifth more expensive than New York.
Diep fled Saigon by boat in 1978, and like many other overseas-born Australian voters now has a deep antipathy to asylum seekers, who she believes are fleeing for largely economic reasons and the promise of generous welfare.
“We came here for freedom. We worked hard to be honest,” the bespectacled 53-year-old says. “I don’t want people who don’t want to go to work. They shouldn’t just take the unemployment benefits.”
Along with asylum, Diep blames the soaring cost of living and new carbon taxes championed by Rudd for undermining the $1.5 trillion economy, reflected now in gloomy business confidence and fears of the first recession for 22 years as a China-led resource export boom fades.
In an alley around the corner, cafe owner and swing voter Eddie Nguyen also wants Labor out, and says many of his customers are hoping to see conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott become prime minister.
“I think Australia’s government should have strong rules, a strong commitment to protect Australians,” says Nguyen, who spent three years in a refugee camp in Indonesia before being accepted as a refugee to Australia in 1987.
“I don’t agree with people going direct to the country like this. It’s like your family, someone knocks on your door and says I want to come into your house, and you have to accept them. That’s just not right. You have to go somewhere and wait until somebody accepts you.”
Pollster John Scales of JWS Research says much of the anger being directed against Labor has its roots in a kind of racist-tinged envy, with migrant voters worried that new boat arrivals from other countries will lessen their chances of bringing more family members to Australia.
Australia’s population growth to near 23 million was driven mostly by a doubling in net migration in eight years, from around 120,000 to around 240,000, helping fill mining jobs but bringing fresh problems.
“Once you get here, it’s not the land of gold and honey. Asylum seekers are where frustration gets vented,” Scales says. “It’s a different sort of racism to standard Australian Anglo-Saxon racism. But it’s still racism.”
Labor MP Michelle Rowland, whose Sydney seat of Greenway is one of the most precariously balanced, says Labor is in difficulty because Western Sydney has become increasingly frustrated and ambitious.
Not helping, she says, has been a frontpage campaign against Labor by billionaire media owner Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, which have been particularly critical of asylum policy switches under Labor.
“When you’re sitting in a traffic jam on the motorway or waiting for a train that never comes, it’s easy to think about the taxes you’ve paid and the benefits others might get,” Rowland says. “Asylum is right up there.”
Abbott, mindful of the simmering mood for change, has made Western Sydney a top priority, visiting often with a promise of tougher asylum seeker laws, which he says will reduce hundreds of boats arriving now to a trickle, and to reinvigorate economic confidence by scrapping carbon taxes and building new roads.
“We will build the roads of the 21st century and we will stop the boats,” he told journalists on a recent swing through the area.
“The message that I give to the people of Australia and to the people of Western Sydney is that if you want a new way, you’ve got to choose a new government.”
Editing by Nick Macfie