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Daily Media Quotation

Party History Goes Overboard

August 10, 2006

by Mike Steketee - The Australian

John Howard likes to explain away internal disagreements by calling the Liberal Party a broad church. But the increasingly bitter refugee debate suggests members do not even share the same faith, let alone enjoy sitting under the same roof.

Principle and conscience are being thrown around by Liberal MPs like hand grenades in a war. Queensland backbencher Cameron Thompson yesterday said that crossing the floor over legislation which ships all boatpeople off to Nauru is "unprincipled". The MPs planning to do so should "look at their conscience", he added.

Actually, that's what they thought they were doing. The Prime Minister put a more moderate version of the Thompson view to Tuesday's party room meeting. Members should accept the majority view of the party, he said, but if they retained their reservations, they should abstain rather than vote with Labor. It was a last-ditch effort to hold his numbers together in the Senate, appealing to the loyalty and discipline which has made life much easier for him for the past 10 years.

It was Petro Georgiou, who represents Robert Menzies's old seat of Kooyong and used to be on Malcolm Fraser's prime ministerial staff, who invoked a more traditional Liberal principle. Speaking immediately after Howard, he said he would be voting against the legislation, and this was why: a basic value of Liberalism was the right of an MP to be able to vote according to his or her conscience and to oppose that which was unprincipled.

In today's Liberal Party, at least in its higher reaches, such an attitude is widely regarded as heresy. Georgiou faced a challenge to his preselection at least in part because he is considered to be not enough of a team player.

West Australian MP Judi Moylan, who shares Georgiou's views on asylum-seekers, is being challenged for preselection for the same reason and has copped intemperate abuse from fellow WA Liberal Don Randall. Liberals such as Randall and Thompson have forgotten their party's history. It used to be a point of pride for Liberal MPs to contrast the freedom they had to exercise their conscience with Labor's requirement of strict adherence to the caucus position on pain of expulsion from the party.

Party discipline is important and disunity can indeed mean death in politics. But voters also appreciate it when MPs occasionally see their role as something more than ciphers. Certainly the periodic rebellions by Liberal senators under the Fraser government did not do its reputation any harm and arguably enhanced it on some issues.

Invoking rule by majority, come what may, can create its own problems and there is no better example than this legislation. As Moylan asked in yesterday's parliamentary debate: "Why is this legislation before the house today when the majority Government-member Senate committee recommended (it) be scrapped or amended? This is virtually a declaration of infallibility, which is absurd, not to say dangerous. It flies in the face of that essential principle of democratic governance: there should be visible, credible checks and balances."

The increased concentration of power at the top of politics, combined with increasingly tight party discipline, has created a democratic dictatorship and reduced the role of parliament to little more than a token. This legislation has tested the limits of Howard's power, and thank heavens it finally encountered some resistance.

In the first place, it fails on the grounds of consistency, undoing the changes Howard made last year after making a deal with the Liberal dissidents. These changes freed women and children from detention and placed three-month limits on initial Immigration Department decisions on asylum-seekers, as well as those made subsequently by the Refugee Review Tribunal. People held in detention for two years or more were to be reviewed by the commonwealth Ombudsman. These were what Howard described as "long overdue" changes to accelerate the processing of asylum-seekers and administer it with greater flexibility and fairness.

Now they have gone overboard because of Indonesian objections to accepting as refugees the 43 Papuans who fled by boat and who the Immigration Department and the RRT found faced a real fear of persecution if sent back. To placate Indonesia, all future Papuans, together with other boatpeople, will be shipped off to Nauru or Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

Howard has offered the dissidents amendments, including improved conditions for children, time limits on determining cases and an avenue for reviewing decisions. The problem with them is that they are largely negated by the prime objectives of the legislation: to move asylum-seekers outside the Australian legal system and, wherever possible, stop them coming to Australia even if they are assessed as refugees.

Apart from Australia failing in its obligations under the refugee convention, the reason this matters is that it takes away the protection of the independent RRT and of the courts. David Manne, the lawyer for the 43 Papuans, points out that the RRT has overturned 92 per cent of the Iraqi and Afghan cases rejected by the Immigration Department. That amounts to 3200 people who were not forced to return to Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to research by the Edmund Rice Centre, including a visit to Afghanistan, at least five Afghans, including three children, whose asylum applications were rejected on Nauru were killed when they returned to Afghanistan. All of them were Hazara, an ethnic minority persecuted before they fled and whose members are all the more vulnerable now that it is known they wanted to live in a Christian country. They are people who, if they had been processed in Australia, probably would have been accepted by the RRT. This is the Afghanistan to which Howard announced yesterday that Australia was sending extra troops because it had become so dangerous.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone greeted the Edmund Rice allegations with her usual bluster when confronted with them on the ABC's Lateline program. You might think a minister would take matters of life and death a little more seriously. Any government that becomes so hard-hearted deserves to be rolled by its back bench.

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