In September last year there seemed to be no real opposition to Prime Minister Rudd's plans for a "Big Australia". There had been a staggering 876,222 arrivals in Australia in 2008 and the Immigration Minister was happy for this to continue:
Senator Evans said immigration should be the nation's labour agency, meaning a continued high intake of migrants ... Decisions about who came to Australia would increasingly be left to employers.
Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, had also declared himself to be in favour of a Big Australia:
My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia. A larger population will bring that about provided that it’s also a more productive one.
But the policy wasn't going down well amongst the working-class voters of western Sydney. As the election approached, it was one of the issues which was dooming the ALP to electoral defeat. And so Kevin Rudd was dramatically axed by his own party as PM, and Julia Gillard installed in his place. And her first policy initiative was to declare herself opposed to Rudd's Big Australia policy:
Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big population. I don't support the idea of a big Australia... We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia.
Gillard also announced as PM that it was OK to have a debate on issues of border security:
"People should feel free to say what they feel," she said.
"For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant. It certainly doesn't make them a racist. It means that they're expressing a genuine view that they're anxious about border security ...
"So 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."
Nor is Tony Abbott talking anymore about "as many as possible". The Liberal Party has now put forward a "contract" which sets limits to immigration in terms of the need to provide adequate infrastructure:
Contract 6: Link population growth to the provision of better infrastructure. The Coalition will set immigration numbers on the basis of economic and environmental sustainability.
Of course, politicians will say anything to win elections. Neither party has committed to an exact migration level, although the Liberal Party has nominated a figure under 180,000 per year until a review has taken place.
Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham is sceptical that Gillard will deliver cuts to migration:
Former Labor leader Mark Latham has labelled Labor's position on population growth "a fraud of the worst order", saying immigration numbers must be slashed.
Speaking on Sky News on Wednesday night, Mr Latham said it was not good enough for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to simply call for a debate on population, and she had to put forward a concrete plan on the issue.
Ms Gillard's "sustainable" population call was not backed with any substance and was a "fraud" designed to appeal to western Sydney voters sensitive to the asylum seeker issue, Mr Latham said.
"It's clever politics but it's a fraud. It's a fraud of the worst order," he said.
The former Labor leader said Australia needed to "take off the population pressure".
His comments followed statements by Ms Gillard on Sunday that she did not want to specify a population target but did not support the idea of "a big Australia".
It has to be remembered as well that immigration numbers began to skyrocket at the end of John Howard's Liberal Government, so it's not only Labor that we have to be careful about on this issue.
Even so, there are reasons to welcome the breaking up of the "Big Australia" consensus. It means, first of all, that there's more room for an open airing of views on the immigration issue. There have even been immigration sceptical columns appearing in the Melbourne Age newspaper (who would have thought?).
It demonstrates too why traditionalists shouldn't succumb to defeatism. You never know when the political situation is going to change, and the more we manage to build up some influence, the more we'll be able to intervene when opportunities arise to push things along in the right direction.
Finally, there's some evidence that the Liberal Party really has changed for the better on this issue. I'd prefer to present the evidence in my next column. It's not a complete break with past policy, nor is it really what traditionalists would want in the longer term, but I think it might be good enough to vote for. But it deserves a column of its own.