Today is voting day in the Australian Federal election

Elections define nations. This one has already redefined Australia even before the first vote is counted. Indeed, the most important changes could well be the ones that aren’t actually on the ballot paper but have already been agreed through political osmosis.

The main political parties entered the campaign with four big, freshly agreed points of concurrence, areas of bipartisan consensus for changes that will shape Australia’s destiny for years.

For the first time since 1947, Australia has abandoned its bipartisan consensus in favour of a “big Australia.”

“It started with Kevin Rudd’s remark in favour of a ‘big Australia’” in October “and though it was off the cuff it started an uncontrollable explosion,” says James Jupp, director of the Australian National University’s centre for immigration and multicultural studies. “What we see at this election is a complete reversal of the origins of the postwar immigration program, which was all about a big Australia. Since then, our population has tripled from 7million to 21 million.”

Instead of gearing our population towards a national vision of Australia’s place in the world, we have surrendered to the failures of state governments to accommodate growth.

Of the three biggest parties – Labor, the Coalition and the Greens – none will defend the current immigration program, none will defend the current rate of population growth of an average of 2.4 per cent a year over the past decade, and all promise a dramatic cut to the immigration intake.

Tony Abbott’s Coalition has pledged to cut the intake from 270,000 last year to 170,000 within its first term. Julia Gillard has replied by saying that the government was already taking the intake to that level or below in any case.

The Coalition promises to slow the rate of population growth to 1.4 per cent. Labor doesn’t yet have a target. It has created a Minister for Population, Tony Burke, to think about population policy, in the meantime temporising with Gillard’s view that “Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.”

With serial and cumulative failures of policy planning in housing, transport, water, hospitals and just about every other areas of service delivery across most states, public tolerance reached a fragile point. Rudd inadvertently applied the final straw.

Instead of a bipartisan consensus in favour of big immigration intakes and strong population growth, we now have a contest between the parties to see who can appear more convincingly to be the party of a not so big Australia.