MELBOURNE, Australia — As Australia faces the global virus of xenophobia, the country’s early history provides a warning of the social and economic costs of isolation.
Australia was one of the richest settlements on earth when it was a British colony with open borders in the 19th century. But it retreated when it became an independent nation in 1901, and it endured almost half a century of economic stagnation before it opened its doors again to mass immigration after World War II.
The leaders of the main political parties continue to support an expansive immigration program and profess to abhor racism. But this cherished bipartisanship is in danger of fracturing.
A set of controversies involving race threaten to make the next federal election — due later this year or early next year — the most divisive in a generation. The conservative government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been exploiting racial disharmony in a bid to shore up its older, whiter electoral base.
But the political benefits for the conservatives of a racially charged campaign are not as clear-cut as they once were. The Labor Party would probably win an election fought along racial lines because of demographic trends: More than half the population is made up of immigrants, their children and Indigenous Australians. The younger, more ethnically diverse electorate tends to lean toward Labor.
So Labor has a strong incentive to make the coming campaign season an explicit contest between diversity and nativism. And in facing down the conservatives on race, Labor has the opportunity to reaffirm Australia’s position as a global model for openness.
Immigration has been responsible for more than half the nation’s population growth between 1996 and 2016. Last year, immigrants accounted for 63 percent of growth. This boom prompted the first of three big controversies over race.
Immigrants are being blamed by conservatives, and even some Labor members, for rising property prices and congestion in the big cities. Some leading conservative figures have been pushing for a deep cut to the immigration program. While Mr. Turnbull has so far resisted their calls, he has thrown red meat to his base: The government is cracking down on temporary work visas to “put Australian workers first” and making it harder for immigrants to claim Australian citizenship.
The danger is that these measures will alienate the skilled immigrants already here and encourage potential immigrants to bypass Australia and settle in more welcoming nations like Canada and