Anti-Islamic feeling is clearly strong in some sections of the country. Vested interests are eager to exploit such sentiments for political gain. The mobilisation of far-right groups such as the United Patriots Front against the building of a mosque in Bendigo, Victoria, is a case in point.
An Islamist-linked terrorist attack on Australian soil or overseas, or the arrival of more asylum-seeker boats, could quickly change the political dynamics of immigration. Such events would likely intensify anti-refugee, anti-Islamic and anti-multicultural feeling in the community. That, in turn, would test political leaders' capacity to deal judiciously with these issues.
As things stand, however, there is bipartisanship on most aspects of immigration policy. That includes the offshore processing and mandatory detention of unauthorised asylum seekers. This constrains the ability and will of the major parties to prioritise immigration in elections.
Public feelings run high
First-order electoral issue or not, sections of the Australian public clearly have concerns about immigration policy that our political leaders need to tackle.
Read a newspaper or listen to talkback radio on any day of the week and you are likely to find adverse views expressed on any number of issues: asylum seekers, asylum-seeker policy, African, Muslim and "Middle Eastern" migrants and refugees, "ethnic gangs", multiculturalism, temporary migration, 457 visas, the environmental, cultural, social and economic impact of migration, Europe and America's migration crises and the lessons to be learned from these.
Yet another ugly confrontation between anti-Islam and anti-racist protesters at a recent "family-friendly" Halal food festival in Melbourne reminds us that, for some people, immigration issues can inspire violent action.
But such views are not monolithic. Opinion on immigration issues is sometimes deeply divided, but people on both sides of such "debates" may reflect a wide range of interests and beliefs. Their emotional investment can vary greatly – from mild concern to white-hot rage.
Neither are contemporary Australian disagreements on immigration unique. Most countries today are dealing with immigration pressures created by war, catastrophe and devastating global inequality. Many countries with standards of living and values similar to ours are debating these issues, often with even greater venom.
Also comparable is the seemingly intransigent nature of these discussions. Positions are so polarised that any sort of compromise seems impossible.
This reinforces another characteristic of contemporary immigration debates: very often they are not discussions at all. They are simply the latest manifestation of decades-old battles between those who are sympathetic to migrants and refugees and those who are not.
While the specific topic of contention may change (Asians, Muslims, Syrians, refugees), the rules of engagement generally remain the same. Both sides talk or shout at each other, but offer little genuine dialogue and little that progresses public debate and reconciles attitudes.
How to find a way forward
Is there a way to move beyond the impasse that characterises immigration discussions in this country? Possibly, subject to certain conditions.
First, we must reinvigorate a public discourse of anti-racism that directly challenges the more extreme and hateful attitudes. These have been allowed to fester at the fringes of our community in relation to immigration issues – Muslim immigration and asylum seekers in particular.
Second, our political leaders must work harder to manage the politics of immigration generally.
Racism and prejudice have undoubtedly played a defining role in current immigration controversies. Such attitudes may not represent a majority viewpoint, but they are considerable, sometimes extreme and very damaging.
The most vocal opponents of immigration or asylum seekers commonly claim their views are not motivated by racism or xenophobia. Instead, they point to security or economic concerns.
Consider, however, the dominance of questions of cultural, ethnic or religious difference, the ascribing of essentialised, demeaning or threatening characteristics to individuals and groups on the basis of those differences ("all Muslims are terrorists", "all asylum seekers are criminals prepared to risk their children's lives") and related demands for prejudicial treatment. All this puts the lie to the claim that prejudice is not a factor.
As Article 2 of the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice 1978 reminds us, racism involves a range of discriminatory attitudes and behaviours. It includes:
"… racist ideologies, prejudiced attitudes, discriminatory behaviour, structural arrangements and institutionalised practices resulting in racial inequality as well as the fallacious notion that discriminatory relations between groups are morally and scientifically justifiable; it is reflected in discriminatory provisions in legislation or regulations and discriminatory practices as well as in anti-social beliefs and acts."
Racist attitudes, nevertheless, are not innate to human beings. They flourish in circumstances of ignorance, fear and insecurity. And they reflect the failure of leaders to set the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.
What is needed are concerted and concise strategies by governments to directly counter erroneous claims about specific migrant groups in our midst. These strategies should aim to rekindle the spirit of anti-racism embodied in international conventions and domestic laws. These are at risk of being forgotten in the current negative climate.
More generally, the time is right for our political leaders to re-open a conversation about immigration with the Australian people as a whole. This must go beyond questions of border security and narrow economic concerns to encompass questions of immigration's broad functions, its social impact, and the national interests it serves.
This process must invite public scrutiny and comment. And it must do so in terms that make clear that discussion must be constructive, productive and founded on principles of human dignity and respect.
Leaders have an opportunity to reset the terms of the debate. In doing so, they could counter the distrust, suspicion and division that have been features of the immigration landscape in recent years. If they do not, public concern over immigration and the risks of social instability will undoubtedly grow.
The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series examines, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform. You can read other articles in the Ideas for Australia series here.
Image: A march against refugees in detention in Melbourne in 2013. Image credit: Flickr/Takver