The high numbers of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat is eroding public support for immigration, says the federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

“Any perception that the Government has outsourced even a component of migrant selection to people smugglers threatens Australians’ sometimes fragile support for immigration,” Mr Abbott said in a speech to the Menzies Research Centre in Melbourne. “The danger, when the immigration program is under question, is that millions of Australians feel less secure in their own country.”

This was a particular risk because migrants and their children comprised 40 per cent of the population, he said.

Citing research by an ANU academic, Katharine Betts, that found Australians were more comfortable with migration when tough political rhetoric created an impression it was under control, Mr Abbott said the former government had more than doubled the migration intake.

“Rebuilding majority support for Australia’s immigration program was one of John Howard’s important but undervalued achievements,” he said.

However, the Refugee Council of Australia said any recent concerns over immigration had been stoked by fear-mongering, not by the 5400 people who had sailed to Australia under the Rudd government.

The 50th boat to be intercepted this year was detected on Monday night, west of Ashmore Island.

Public attention continued to rest on the minority of asylum seekers who arrived by boat, when far larger numbers flew, said a spokeswoman for the council, Kate Gauthier. “If the public knew the truth about the numbers and the horrible situations they were fleeing, Australians would react with open arms and compassion.”

On April 9 the government froze all processing of Sri Lankan and Afghan refugee claims in toughened measures to deter future boat ventures. Yesterday Mr Abbott said this change had not worked.

He reiterated a Coalition plan for the Productivity Commission to do an annual, independent review of Australia’s infrastructure needs, considering short-, medium- and long-term population projections. “This should help to sustain public support for a significant immigration program.”

However, a similar policy already exists. In February the government employed independent experts to advise on optimum levels of net overseas migration and the ability of infrastructure to cope. Professor Sue Richardson of Flinders University was commissioned to examine the relationships between migration and the built and natural environments.

Another professor, Peter McDonald of ANU, was commissioned to advise on net overseas migration factoring in the needs of the labour market.

Similarly, the federal government has also already announced changes to the skilled migration program to better meet Australia’s long-term “economic and demographic goals”.

Yesterday the Opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, joined his leader in criticising the processing costs of asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

Each asylum seeker cost taxpayers almost $82,000, Mr Morrison said. “We are barely four months into 2010 and already Kevin Rudd has racked up a half-century of boats, with more than 2400 people on board.”

The Minister for Population, Tony Burke, was travelling and unavailable for comment.

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