Tony Abbott has moved to portray his tough border protection stance as pro-immigration, arguing that it helps to maintain public support if people think immigration is controlled by the government rather than by people-smugglers. The Opposition Leader, in an Australia Day speech last night, urged minority leaders to respect mainstream Australian values, just as they demand respect for their own, arguing that would help to bolster public support for immigration.

And Mr Abbott called on Kevin Rudd to take some “courageous decisions” to meet projections of an extra 13 million people by 2050. “It’s good that the Prime Minister is talking about the need for planning and for courageous decisions to meet the challenges of the mid-century,” Mr Abbott said. “It would be even better if he would actually make some prior to the next election.”

Mr Abbott used his address to the Australian Day Council in Melbourne to defend a tough border protection regime, arguing it was consistent with a large and inclusive immigration policy. “In fact, it’s probably essential if the public is to be convinced that Australia’s immigration policy is run by the government rather than by people-smugglers,” he said.

Mr Abbott said 67 per cent of Australians thought the immigration intake was too high in 1993 but that had dropped to 34 per cent by 2004, even though the immigration intake had increased after the Howard government toughened its border protection regime. He warned critics of tough border protection that their concerns could “end up undermining Australia’s traditional openness to immigrants”. “The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country,” the Opposition Leader said.

Mr Abbott said people should be especially concerned that ethnic Indians could have become the victims of racially motivated crime: “It would be an affront to our self-perception as a society where people are judged on their merits rather than on their skin colour.”

Mr Abbott likened the controversy over Muslim cleric Taj Din al-Hilali’s comments on women and Jews to Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix’s criticisms 90 years earlier on the conduct of World War I. He argued that there had hardly been a time when there were not some reservations about the loyalty of some ethnic groups, but “thus far at least” all had eventually become as Australian as everyone else.

Mr Abbott said immigration had been a success almost unparalleled in history, but it regularly featured as an issue of concern. Factors contributing to this included an increase in unauthorised boat arrivals, raising fears that Australia’s borders were again uncontrolled.

He said there was a concern about whether the natural and built environments could cope with the population pressures.

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