It was a very deliberate shift in Ms Gillard’s language on the issue of asylum seekers on the weekend.
“I’d like to sweep away any sense that people should close down any debate, including this debate through a sense of self-censorship or political correctness,” she said.
“People should say what they feel and my view is many in the community feel anxious when they see asylum seeker boats and obviously we, as a Government, want to manage our borders.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and backbencher David Bradbury say the Prime Minister is calling for a mature debate.
“She wants to have an open conversation with the Australian people about these issues,” Ms Macklin said.
“They are issues that Australians have many different views about and I think what she’s wanting to encourage is a mature debate about them.”
But some Labor MPs see echoes of Mr Howard’s initial approach to the rise of One Nation founder Pauline Hanson, such as this from September 1996:
“One of the great changes that has come over Australia in the last six months is that people do feel able to speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel. In a sense the pall of censorship on certain issues has been lifted,” Mr Howard said.
At the time Mr Howard made the statement Labor MPs were highly critical, accusing him of dog whistling – sending a message to a specific part of the electorate.
Those MPs who have some concerns about their Prime Minister’s use of language were not prepared to speak publicly today, but Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young was.
“Her job as prime minister should be to reassure the Australian people that there is nothing to be anxious of, there’s nothing to be fearful of, calm down the debate,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“Take out the hysteria and in fact, do the right thing, not what is easy. And Julia Gillard seems to think that the easy route for her at the moment is to chase Tony Abbott down the low road of politics.
“Her dog whistle this morning was the lowest form of politics that I’ve seen played in a long time from the Labor Party.”
The big issue
Some Labor MPs for some weeks have been saying privately that the question of asylum seekers is a bigger issue for Labor in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne than the mining tax.
Backbencher David Bradbury, who represents the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, says the issue of asylum seekers is a big one.
He says it takes in concerns about population growth, but mainly about protecting borders and treating refugees fairly.
“It’s about ensuring that whilst we are a generous country and we’re prepared to not only meet our international obligations but be a good international citizen, that we want to do that within a framework that does not encourage people to take risky and life-threatening voyages across the sea,” he said.
Minister Chris Bowen, who also represents western Sydney, says a high number of his constituents are refugees or have many family members in refugee camps around the world.
“My community certainly acknowledges the importance of refugees, the important contribution that they’ve made to Australia and would continue to make to Australia,” he said.
“Likewise, there’s a lot of concern in my community about those high number of people waiting in camps and for every person who arrives on a boat, that’s one less person we take from a camp.”
But one MP who lives outside of those cities says if Ms Gillard moves to toughen the policy, it could mean losing some votes to the Greens in inner city seats.
But the MPs that PM have spoken to have no answers to the problems the debate raises for Labor. They recognise that toughening the policy and addressing the view strongly put by the Coalition that the Government has lost control of the borders could shore up support in the centre and on the right, but risk losing some on the left.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the voters know who they can trust on the issue.
“The Prime Minister can engage all she likes in some sort of midnight conversion on the eve of an election but the truth is 143 boats don’t lie,” he said.
“That’s the record of their policies and I think the Australian people will make a judgement about who they believe they can best trust on this issue – our proven record or the Government’s hollow words on the eve of an election.”
A decision on Labor’s policy is expected soon, with a three-month pause on processing claims from asylum seekers from Sri Lanka due to expire on Thursday.