“What’s the difference between a wet and moderate?” David Barnett
once asked me. “Moderates win preselections,” I replied. The Australian offers a perfect example of how the wets failed today.

Crikey readers will know I have my disagreements with Amanda Vanstone,
but she has always offered a perceptive assessment of why the wets lost
the battle of ideas in the Liberal Party.

When she arrived in Canberra, senior wets – in particular a certain
former NSW Senator – behaved like keepers of the sacred
flame of liberalism. They made their disdain for young devotees very
clear. It would take much before they were deemed worthy to become
initiates, they indicated.

They never did. The old wets were dumped by the party and their
would-be acolytes either gave up and joined the right or became today’s
moderates. All of which makes it particularly galling that the wettest
of the wets, Ian Macphee, has popped up in The Australian today giving a lecture on the Liberal Party.

Macphee lost his preselection a decade and a half ago. Good timing. His
economic views – let alone his attachment to a rigid industrial
relation system – were probably out of place with the late Hawke and
Keating governments, let alone his own party. Nothing more amply
demonstrates the difference between a wet and a moderate.

Macphee states the bleeding obvious: “When Menzies founded the Liberal
Party he welcomed parliamentarians acting upon matters of conscience.
So did Alfred Deakin who founded the first Liberal Party. Identifying
liberalism with liberty, Deakin viewed liberals as those who vigilantly
modify excesses by authority.” Actually, Ian, it goes back to the 1890s
and the Labor pledge.

Macphee also reintroduces the term “wet” into political discourse in
the opening line of his piece “George Lucas might deem it ‘The Return
of the Wets’.” Brilliant tactics. What an own goal. Give the moderates
a Sophie sledge any day rather than leaving them stuck with an outdated
tag, Ian.

Macphee and his analysis belong in the dustbin of history. A much more
perceptive, contemporary and accurate account of last Friday’s event
was written in Saturday’s Age by Misha Schubert – someone who was still in school when Macphee’s career came to an end.

Monash University’s school of politics head, Nick Economou, says the
latest split sits within a long tradition of divisions over matters of
conscience. But he says the divide is no longer between liberals and
conservatives, or economic wets and dries.

“What we now see is division between the cosmopolitans and conservatives,” he says.

“But in Australian politics, hardline ideologues don’t really get
anywhere – the essence of success is pragmatism so that tends to knock
the extremes off at each end.”

That wily old bird Brian Harradine said as much in the preview of the
valedictory speech he will deliver when he ends his 30 year career this
week he gave to Dennis Shanahan in The Weekend Australian.

“A majority of one may well prove much more difficult than currently
negotiating with the four independents or with the Democrats,” Senator
Harradine said.

“The parliament faces a number of contentious issues in coming years, which will test the values of politicians.

“Industrial relations, welfare reform, abortion and human cloning
– each of these issues calls for a decision based on a firm foundation
of values.”

“But there is a range of often conflicting values in the Government’s Senate majority.

“So the Government’s newfound power will expose the rifts inside the
Coalition because, unless they can agree on a common set of values,
those splits will emerge.”

Cosmopolitans versus conservatives it is. Macphee presumably hasn’t
noticed that populist authoritarian policies advocated by those people
he presumably still calls “dries” – such as mandatory detention and
work for the dole – actually cost taxpayers more. There’s nothing dry
about them.

He also overlooks the role played by Senator Judith Troeth in the
mandatory detention debate last week – and Dana Vale’s leading of the
other major revolt Howard has had to deal with, the push to overturn
the Northern Territory’s mandatory sentencing laws in 2000. Here were
two conservative women facing a crisis in values.

“Formerly, Howard did not take seriously liberals such as Marise
Payne,” Macphee writes. “But the efforts of Petro Georgiou, Judi
Moylan, Bruce Baird and Russell Broadbent have changed that. However
reluctantly, Howard now understands that he must negotiate with
colleagues on matters upon which they hold strong opinions.”

But it’s not a factional issue. Give me Michelle Grattan’s realpolitik description from Saturday:

Government backbenchers are usually seen, and treated, as
foot soldiers who are supposed to know their place, not semi-equals
with whom a prime minister has to spend some nine hours of his time
over a week in direct negotiation.

From a prime minister’s point of view, it’s one thing to listen to his
followers in the party room; it’s quite another to have to cut a deal,
especially one he doesn’t really want to do.

Why did this gang of four (the other was Bruce Baird from NSW) have so much clout?

The main reason was that they made a credible and, from Howard’s
viewpoint, an alarming threat in what was a shock and awe campaign.

He knew that Georgiou was willing, unless he got enough of what he
wanted, to carry through his plan to introduce private member’s bills
challenging the mandatory detention system. Howard was appalled at the
thought of having a Government split dramatically paraded on the floor
of Parliament.

Only one par of Macphee’s is worth noting: “Howard has long wished to
emulate Robert Menzies and the way in which he handled the detention
issue shows that he has acquired some of Menzies’ renowned skill for
detecting the electorate’s changing moods and adjusting policies and
rhetoric to meet them. If he continues to take dissent seriously he may
even exceed Menzies’ term in office.”

That talks about dissent, not dries or wets.

Let’s please leave that second lot mouldering in their graves.