It only scored a small report by Michelle Grattan (Liberal MPs to plead for detainees), but yesterday’s visit to Baxter detention centre by three Liberal MPs could actually portend major change in the government’s hard-line refugee policy.
The three represent an interesting cross-section of Liberal Party opinion. One is Bruce Baird, a former minister in New South Wales, who is a leader of the NSW left and therefore of the pro-Costello grouping. Another is Phil Barressi, a low-profile Victorian backbencher who is not regarded as a major factional player but who has accommodated himself to the Costello group in Victoria (which, confusingly, thinks of itself as the right).
The third, of course, is Greek immigrant Petro Georgiou, who is the most doggedly anti-Costello of Victoria’s Liberal MPs, but who also bears a grudge against John Howard for not giving him a ministry and has long been identified as friendly to asylum seekers.
That fact that these three agree on anything is impressive enough. If what they are agreeing on is a repudiation of the policy track that saved Howard from oblivion in 2001, is fairly major news. It’s also an important move in the Liberal leadership contest.
Much of Peter Costello’s (limited) appeal, both within the Liberal Party and generally, depends upon the impression that he is a kinder and gentler figure with a more progressive orientation than his boss: the republic and Aboriginal reconciliation are the two issues often cited to justify that impression. His views on refugees, however, have always been less clear. In public, he has loyally defended the Howard line; what he thinks in private is anyone’s guess.
If some sort of a cross-factional consensus emerges on the Liberal backbench for a relaxation of refugee policy, we may even get the heady prospect of a bidding war between Abbott and Costello as to who can put on the more sympathetic front.