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When Malcolm Turnbull staged an internal Liberal coup to replace an unpopular Tony Abbott as party leader and Australia's prime minister in 2015, it was hailed as victory of the moderns and moderates over the ultraconservative ideologues and their nasty dog-whistling strategists.

Guess who's blowing dog whistles now?

The plan Mr. Turnbull unveiled last month to screen immigrants for Australian values (sound familiar?) and make it harder to obtain Australian citizenship represents a crass U-turn for a Prime Minister who only a few years ago attacked a then-Labor government for seeking to cut the number of temporary foreign workers entering the country. "If you support skilled migration and a diverse society, you don't ramp up the chauvinistic rhetoric," he tweeted in 2013.

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Now, it is Mr. Turnbull's turn to target the so-called 457 visa, replacing it with a program that puts new restrictions on foreign workers. The Prime Minister says the immigration changes are all about "putting Australians first." But they are really about exploiting largely, but not exclusively, working-class resentment toward visible minorities, especially if they're Muslims.

"If we believe that respect for women and children and saying no to violence … is an Australian value, and it is, then why should that not be made a key part, a very fundamental part, a very prominent part, of our process to be an Australian citizen?" Mr. Turnbull asked last month.

Well, for starters, because it demonstrates an astonishing degree of contempt for the very values that liberal democracies such as Australia purport to champion.

Is it really necessary to ask immigrants "under which circumstances is it permissible to cut female genitals" to convey the unacceptability of excision, which is already illegal? You can only answer yes if the real objective of such a measure is to pander to a substantial, but misguided, group of voters who seeks to alleviate their own insecurities by humiliating others.

You'd almost think this cockeyed plan was something cooked up by Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who may or may not have been behind the 2015 election promise by former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives to set up a "barbaric cultural practices" hotline. But Sir Lynton – the knighthood was bestowed by former British prime minister David Cameron after the so-called Wizard of Oz helped him win the 2015 British election – is currently too busy exercising the political dark arts in aid of Tory PM Theresa May's election bid.

Sir Lynton's business partner, Mark Textor, however, happens to be Mr. Turnbull's chief pollster. And what the polls are telling Mr. Turnbull is that white, working-class voters in Australia are increasingly turning sour on immigration. This is something of a paradox in a country in which 28 per cent of the population is foreign-born, compared with about 21 per cent in Canada, and that has long been held up as a model multicultural society.

The truth is that both the Liberals (who are actually conservatives) and the Labor Party now only pay lip service to multiculturalism. Both are seeking to scratch an itch among white working- and middle-class voters. Labor recently ran an ad in Queensland promising to "build Australia first, buy Australian first and employ Australians first." All of the dozen or so workers in the ad were white.

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Support for the current policy of turning back boats of asylum seekers, or detaining them on islands off the Australian coast, remains strong, even among Labor voters. Hence, the dilemma for Labor Leader Bill Shorten, trapped between his party's white working-class base and the urban progressives and immigrant voters Labor needs to win elections.

Mr. Turnbull, meanwhile, is looking over his shoulder at a renewed threat from the far-right One Nation party and Mr. Abbott, who appears to be angling for his old job. He just gave a speech denouncing the "cultural cowardice" of the elites, including the folks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and their "pervasive ambivalence verging on hostility to our country and its values."

Does Australia represent the ghost of Canadian politics yet to come? Polls show Canadians from across the political spectrum really like Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch's idea of screening immigrants for Canadian values. She's sticking to her guns, no matter how many old Red Tory friends she loses.

Hey, if Australia can go that low, why can't we?

The Globe's John Ibbitson makes predictions on the Conservative leadership race and says the party needs to choose between sticking to Stephen Harper's values or that of U.S. President Donald Trump
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