SYDNEY – Immigration and climate change are two of the most polarizing issues in Australia and over which the new government elected in Saturday’s elections will face increasing public pressure.
During the last decade, energy policy has been the Achilles’ heel of the successive Labor and Conservative governments in the Oceanic country, an important coal exporter and one that feels the effects of global warming more strongly than others in the developed world.
Last year was Australia’s third warmest since records began and its southeastern region suffered the worst drought of the last century, while one of its most famous natural assets, the Great Barrier Reef, was hit by two episodes of mass coral bleaching due to warmer water temperatures.
This has meant that Australians some of the most concerned about climate change in the world – 44 percent of its citizens compared to a global average of 37 percent.
The government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is running for re-election with the Liberal–National Coalition, proposed to reduce gas emissions by between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Morrison, who as treasurer appeared in parliament with a piece of coal to defend its use to generate electricity, has promoted an incentives-based system to reduce emissions, which has been questioned by experts.
“The emission of polluting gases has increased steadily since 2013 (the year the conservatives returned to power),” said the director of the Climate Change Institute, Professor Mark Howden, who added that the current energy policy “does not work.”
The Labor Party, which leads the polls, has responded with a proposal to increase emission reduction by 45 percent in the next decade and promote the use of electric vehicles.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has instead avoided recovering the tax on carbon dioxide emissions introduced in 2012, which was harshly criticized by Conservatives despite the fact that it had been accepted by large companies and ended up contributing to the fall of the last Labor government.
The other major issue in the domestic debate was immigration, dominated for the last seven years by the controversial policy of putting asylum seekers in offshore detention centers on the islands of Nauru and Manus in the Pacific Ocean.
The widely criticized policy was reintroduced in 2012 after 17,000 people “without papers” arrived by boat, the majority from conflict zones.
After criticism by the UN and human rights groups, Australia agreed this year to evacuate all children from the centers and move adults in need of medical treatment to Australia after a campaign by doctors.
The two main parties share a firm position on border control, which in April led Morrison to freeze the annual refugee admission quota at 18,750, while Labor advocates reaching more agreements to accommodate refugees with third-party countries, such as New Zealand.
Morrison has also reduced the entry quota of permanent immigrants from 190,000 to 160,000, in the face of growing unrest due to increasing demographic pressure on infrastructure and services in major cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne.
Australia, a country of immigrants which is located close to Asia, has received migrants from all over the world, including Europeans who arrived under an assisted program more than 50 years ago, Vietnamese and Latin American refugees.
Despite having a territory of more than 7.6 million square kilometers, more than 24 million of its inhabitants are clustered in cities along a coastal strip to the southeast of the country, to the detriment of the development of rural areas and the interior.
To this end, the last government introduced new requirements for granting visas to applicants whose professions are required in Australia, including the condition of residing for at least three years in rural or medium-sized cities and a system of incentives to redirect the migratory flow.
“They offered us all the migratory guarantees, a work visa for him, the sponsorship for me, economic help for the tickets and relocation expenses,” said Colombian Juliana Moncada, who settled in Wagga-Wagga, 460 km southwest of Sydney, with her husband, an electronic engineer.