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Liberal Party rats in the ranks

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 31 May 2005

In February 2002 the Liberal Party in Tasmania, led by Howard Government minister Eric Abetz, stripped me of my endorsement as a candidate for the forthcoming state election. My sin was to speak out publicly and often about the right of Liberal Party members to exercise their conscience over human rights abuses such as those meted out to asylum seekers in detention centres. Four and a half years on and it is federal MPs Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Marise Payne, Bruce Baird and Judi Moylan who are arguing the same case.

And as was the case with me, these MPs are being told to keep their criticisms for "behind closed doors" discussion, and that their concern for human rights must come second to party discipline. It now remains to be seen whether or not some of these MPs have their political careers curtailed, as happened to me, through pre-selection challenges in the lead up to the next election.

That this is likely to be the case was foreshadowed on Tuesday by Communications Minister Helen Coonan. If government MPs want to dissent then make sure the public can’t hear, was the gist of Senator Coonan’s message.


The significance of Senator Coonan weighing into the issue was that she ran a bitterly contested pre-selection battle against her New South Wales colleague Payne to secure second spot on the Liberals’ 2001 “Tampa” election ticket. Coonan renounced her alignment with Payne’s moderate small “l” Liberal grouping and joined with the right in order to skewer her colleague. One suspects that the knives will be out for Payne again.

Mr Georgiou represents the most iconic Liberal seat of them all - Robert Menzies’ old stamping ground of Kooyong. Now that Mr Howard seems to have finally lost his patience with Mr Georgiou’s public defiance of the Government’s harsh mandatory detention policies, the stage is set for a repeat of the 1989 ousting of another Liberal MP who dared to publicly cross Mr Howard - Ian McPhee in the seat of Goldstein. Mr McPhee’s progressive view of the world did not suit the Howard led Liberal Party and he lost pre-selection to the conservative David Kemp. The intriguing question here is whether or not the man who controls the Victorian Liberal Party today, Treasurer Peter Costello, will come to Mr Georgiou’s aid?

Similarly with the Western Australian based Ms Moylan. No doubt Howard-supporting Liberals will adjudge her vocal dissent over asylum seekers, coupled with her bravery in being the only government MP to voice doubts over the wisdom of the Iraq war, as so treacherous that she must be removed.

That the mood of the Howard led Liberal Party is intolerant of its public dissenters was made evident at a session of the Future Summit held in Melbourne earlier this month.

I chaired a panel of three young Liberal MPs - Workforce Participation Minister Peter Dutton, Victorian backbencher Tony Smith and Queensland backbencher, Michael Johnson. In the course of that panel discussion the matter of dissent in the Liberal Party on matters of conscience such as human rights was raised by former leading small "l" Liberal Fred Chaney. Not one of these “up and coming” MPs supported the right to do what Mr Georgiou and his colleagues have done this week. They all believe that public dissent equals political death for the Liberal Party.

But although the future for Mr Georgiou and his colleagues might look a little grim, and the intolerance that characterises the modern Liberal Party has been reinforced once again, there is a potential silver lining. Come July 1 and the Howard government will control the Senate.


In other words, the events of this week might embolden Liberals who believe in protection of human rights, particularly for the vulnerable and dispossessed in our community, to threaten to cross the floor in the Senate after July 1. Given the Howard government’s mooted industrial relations changes which will erode workers’ rights, and further extensions of mutual obligation policies to the disabled, there will be plenty of opportunities for genuine liberals in the Government ranks to vote according to their conscience.

Mr Howard was reported to be “very, very angry” in the Party’s meeting of MPs this week, where Mr Georgiou and his colleagues nailed their colours to the mast. The Prime Minister might be rattled, but at least the Liberal Party might now return to its long standing tradition of allowing the exercise of freedom of thought and speech in the public realm by it’s members.

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An edited version of this article is published in The Age, today, May 31, 2005.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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