THE Government’s senior leadership is caught up in a damaging and destabilising tangle of claims related to immigration numbers.
At issue is whether early last year then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tried to drive a 20,000 cut in the annual intake through cabinet and was rebuffed, or merely discussed possible numbers with colleagues.
Mr Dutton, now Home Affairs Minister, has acknowledged he canvassed options to deal with changing circumstances but has stopped short of confirming claims there was a full cabinet debate on the matter.
There is no consensus on what happened during March last year, but Mr Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have supported each other’s versions.
But there remain suggestions, partly confirmed by Mr Dutton, that he took a proposal around the offices of senior ministers, including Treasurer Scott Morrison and Mr Turnbull.
The most damaging claim reported by unnamed sources is of a lingering immigration policy split between Mr Dutton, a prominent conservative and leadership hopeful, and Mr Turnbull.
And that would suit Coalition rebels who have nominated immigration numbers as a critical point of difference between them and Mr Turnbull.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott is among those agitating for lower numbers.
“I don’t comment, and never have, on cabinet or other gatherings,” Mr Dutton told reporters in Canberra today.
“But as I made the point before: As you would expect of course the Government canvasses what the program number should be. We do that each year.”
Mr Turnbull yesterday said of a newspaper report of cabinet discussions: “The article, the claim in the article, is false.”
Mr Dutton today supported the Prime Minister’s comments. And he pointed to a current intake that would be lower than projected.
“The Government has taken a decision to set the (net immigration intake) at 190,000. I think it’s been that since about 2012,” said Mr Dutton.
“I note that last year it was down from that by about 7000 — roughly 183,000 … I would expect the number (for this financial year) to be less than 190,000 anyway.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in Perth called the Government’s immigration debate part of the Coalition’s leadership “circus”.
“None of them seem to be helping Mr Turnbull in my opinion,” he said of the competing claims.
“But let’s get back to what really matters,” he told reporters.
“People are over the Liberal circus. You would have thought they had a wake-up call this week but it’s more of the same,” he said, referring to the Government’s 30th consecutive Newspoll loss.