Australia's role in Pacific tied into Asian immigration debate

The specter of a ``white Australia'' immigration policy, buried two decades ago, is once again casting a shadow over politics here. The proposal by opposition leader John Howard for a policy that would restrict non-European immigrants has become one of Australia's hottest political issues.

It states that the government would have the option to alter the racial makeup of the immigrant intake ``to maintain social cohesion and harmony.''

Or, as Mr. Howard has said, ``There may be a case for slowing immigration from Asia.''

The opposition position may be aimed at getting votes. Polls show that 70 to 80 percent of Australians agree that Asian immigration should be slowed. But Howard's conservative coalition (Liberal and National Parties) is deeply divided over the position: National Party leader Ian Sinclair endorses the call for fewer Asian immigrants, and former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser condemns it. Deputy opposition leader John Peacock says he'll quit the Liberal Party if immigration policy is racially based.

The immigration stand, political analysts say, is a risky opposition bid to distinguish itself from the ruling Labor Party. But dissent within the coalition has grown since the policy emerged nearly three weeks ago. Howard stuck to his position and smoothed over coalition differences at an immigration policy meeting Monday. The meeting was considered a crucial test of his leadership.

Meanwhile, business leaders are concerned about sending a racist message to Australia's key (and future) trading partners in Southeast Asia.

John Saunders, acting managing director of the Australian Trade Commission, doesn't believe the immigration debate has damaged trade ties. But it hasn't gone unnoticed, either.

``We have received a series of questions from people in Hong Kong and Tokyo seeking clarification,'' Dr. Saunders says. Last week, the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, warned that this policy debate might damage Australia's trade relations.

Mineral exports could be affected

Highly dependent on farm and mineral exports, economists frequently say Australia must sell more manufacturing and service products to the growing markets of its northern neighbors.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke told reporters earlier this month: ``Australia, if it is going to maximize its opportunities, must be an Australia which sees itself increasingly enmeshed in the economy of the Pacific.'' Mr. Hawke also vowed to fight the next federal election based on the government's current immigration policy, which does not discriminate by country or race.

The immigration debate has also affected the Hawke Cabinet. Reportedly dissatisfied with Immigration Minister Clyde Holding's performance in that controversial post, Hawke demoted Mr. Holding on Monday to a junior ministerial portfolio.

The move was precipitated by the appointment of Bill Hayden, the foreign affairs and trade minister, to the titular position of governor general - the Queen's representative in Australia. Gareth Evans, the former minister of transport and communications, steps into the foreign affairs position.

Concern over Asian immigration has risen with real estate property prices. Wealthy buyers from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan have found Australian property relatively cheap. And several gang-related killings in the Vietnamese community have also made headlines in the past year.

Immigration from Southeast Asia rose sharply in the early 1980s. Australia took in more Vietnam refugees per capita than any other nation, according to the immigration department. Based on family reunion and skill qualifications, about 32 percent of Australia's immigrants last year came from Asia. That's down slightly from four years ago. And while Australia's total migrant intake has more than doubled since 1983-84, the number of Asian immigrants has not quite doubled.

The FitzGerald report - a landmark study of immigration policy released in May - shows that at current immigration levels, Australia's Asian population (now about 4 percent) will swell to 7 percent of the population by the year 2025.

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