Labor and Coalition turn immigration into super Saturday byelection issue | Australia news

The major parties have upped the ante on the politically sensitive subject of immigration as the super Saturday byelections enter the home stretch. Coalition heavyweights are trumpeting a fall in permanent migration as Labor decries an increase in temporary places.

Campaigning in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, pointed to the drop in permanent migration “through the extra application of common sense” as a positive, while declaring that Labor would allow asylum boats to restart.

Also on the hustings in Braddon the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, declared the government wanted “a pat on the back” for the decrease in permanent numbers “when the number of people coming here temporarily, with visas that give them work rights in Australia, has blown out to 1.6 million people”.

Braddon byelection

Shorten said that increase was inappropriate at a time when many young Australians were struggling to find work.

As the partisan fight intensifies in the lead-up to 28 July, Guardian Australia has learned that federal officials are working up options for cabinet on population policy, with a focus on how to encourage migrants to move to regional areas rather than settling in Sydney or Melbourne.

Immigration has been bubbling away as a political issue for more than 12 months courtesy of a campaign by the former prime minister Tony Abbott to slash the program by 80,000 – a campaign that has been heavily discouraged by colleagues including the treasurer, Scott Morrison.

Abbott resumed his push on Monday, declaring that the Coalition could make immigration an election issue if the government was prepared to promise voters a substantial cut. He declared Labor was “in the grip of, I suppose, ethnic activists in certain respects”.

The former prime minster said Dutton had made progress curbing the overall numbers but the intake was still “a record level, so we’ve got to bring it down pretty sharply if we are going to start getting the downward pressure off wages, if we’re going to take the upward pressure off housing prices, if we’re going to unclog our infrastructure”.

“Our public transport is full, our roads are blocked, and if we’re going to take some of the pressure off integration, particularly in places like Melbourne.”

While senior colleagues sought earlier in the year to rebuff Abbott’s positioning on a red-hot political issue, Dutton suggested in February that Australia must reduce its intake of migrants “where we believe it’s in our national interest”.

The home affairs minister has trumpeted as a positive the drop in the permanent program after it was revealed last week that 162,417 people permanently migrated to Australia in 2017-18 – well under the 190,000 cap and down from 183,608 the year before.

In Braddon on Monday, unveiling a local investment in CCTV, Dutton declared: “The Coalition is delivering a decrease in those numbers.”

The prominent Western Australian Liberal Dean Smith has also joined the growing push, arguing on Sunday night that moderating the immigration intake would give Australia “time to breathe” and space to develop a population policy to allow proper planning, while maintaining social cohesion.

Smith wants to use the milestone of Australia’s population reaching 25 million as a catalyst for a broader conversation about whether services are keeping up with the intake of people.

Malcolm Turnbull told reporters on Monday he would discuss Smith’s population policy proposal with the backbencher but he noted there had been several inquiries, including one by the Productivity Commission.

The prime minister said the immigration program was “being run better than ever” and Australia had every right to be “picky” when it came to the permanent program.

“Our borders are secure and, in terms of the permanent migration program, we are taking not one person more than the number that we need and want here in Australia,” he said.

Asked whether the government should lower the current cap of 190,000, Turnbull said the number was a ceiling, not a target.

Pressed on whether the number should be lowered, he said the outcome mattered, not the headline number. “The important thing is the outcome – it is actually lower, it’s about 20,000 lower this year than it was the year before.”