Monday, November 17, 2008


With Howard away, the moderates have a say

Phillip Coorey, smh

November 17, 2008

The travails of being a moderate Liberal during the Howard years are being well demonstrated in a series of new revelations, especially on that most controversial of topics, border protection.

John Howard was used to moderates Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan and Bruce Baird agitating for change from the time border protection became an issue in the months before the election in 2001.

In The Howard Years, the four-part ABC TV series that begins tonight, both Georgiou and Baird bristle when recounting Howard's now memorable line at the 2001 campaign launch about deciding who comes to this country and the circumstance in which they come.

Baird called it "smart politically" but "on a human basis, I was concerned".

Georgiou said: "When I first saw the slogan I just went 'gulp'."

Joe Hockey lauds the line's political effectiveness: "As he said it, I thought that's the line that's going to capture the mood of the population", while Mark Vaile calls it "incredibly powerful".

Howard maintains flatly that he would have won that election without his hard line on border protection, the MV Tampa, or even September 11, 2001.

Still, he did not like his border protection policy being challenged, be it in 2001 or much later, such as in 2005 when four backbenchers went to the Lodge to lobby for a softening of mandatory detention.

In her book Blind Conscience, the journalist Margot O'Neill recounts Howard's anger at the newcomer Russell Broadbent joining Georgiou, Baird and Moylan. Broadbent was not a moderate and he held a volatile marginal seat but he had become touched by the plight of a constituent trying to help two boys in a detention centre.

Howard shouted at him. "What are you doing with this chardonnay-sipping set? They don't represent the same kind of people as you. Their seats are not like yours. Why are you here? You don't belong in this group."

To illustrate his point, Howard made available for his guests only three chairs, forcing Broadbent to fetch his own.

Confirming the account to the Herald, Broadbent said the Lodge meeting was one of 13 the four had with Howard over mandatory detention. For the first 12 there was no chair for him. Only at the last was his chair there, directly facing Howard and in front of the others.

Howard chose only to deal with Broadbent as a final compromise was nutted out, using him as "a bridge" to the others.

The account of the meeting ends with a hostile standoff between Howard and Georgiou. Each was as stubborn and as resolute as the other, making them more alike than either would care to imagine.

Georgiou and his crew showed guts over the years. While other so-called moderates were quietened by promotion or simply re-educated, the backbenchers endured hostility from their colleagues and watched their careers stall.

They had small victories, the main one during the last term when they made Howard back down on plans to excise the Australian mainland from the immigration zone. In Howard's eyes, and his defence, unity was the hallmark of his government's success. Rabble-rousers, especially those with safe seats, were duty bound to respect the majority view of their colleagues.

Now in Opposition, the ever-determined Georgiou stands poised to achieve more than when he was in government. With Howard gone, Malcolm Turnbull in charge and compassion back in vogue politically, the moderates are quickly reasserting themselves.

The legislation enshrining equal legal and financial rights for same-sex couples is near passing in the Senate, but the most startling example was last week when the Liberal Party led an assault in the Senate to soften its own counter terrorism laws.

In government, Georgiou fought twice to have an independent review mechanism set up to monitor the need for, use of, and efficacy of the laws that gave extraordinary powers to security authorities. He was rebuffed by Howard so he tried again after the election with a private members bill, which the Labor Government then rebuffed.

So last week, after Georgiou's cause became official party policy, the Liberals, with the support of the Greens and independents and the drive of the moderate shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, passed a bill in the Senate to establish the watchdog. One astonished Green said: "Who would have thought we'd see the day when the Liberals were left of Labor on terrorism?"

Georgiou's bill needs to pass the lower house, and it is more likely Labor will introduce its own bill containing similar measures. It is waiting to receive the report this week of the inquiry into the Mohamed Haneef case which undoubtedly will contain recommendations.

Nonetheless, the Liberals - Georgiou in particular - can claim the credit.