John Howard is fond of referring to
his Liberals as a broad church but rarely in his ten years as Prime Minister has
he had to experience in the House of Representatives the consequences of leading
a party containing members of quite diverse views.

The closest Mr Howard came to a real
split in the ranks was last year over the treatment of women and children in
camps containing asylum seekers, but he avoided that with a tactful compromise in
legislation.

Now the very same issue of people
arriving on Australian shores without visas is set to provide him with another
challenge.

The Migration Amendment (Designated
Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 was introduced to the Parliament in some haste
after immigration department officials deemed that 42 Papuans had “a
well-founded fear of being persecuted” if they were sent home to
Indonesia.

That decision was an affront to
Indonesian President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono who had personally assured
Australia that the
Papuans would be quite safe if and when they were returned home. Diplomatic relations between
Australia and
Indonesia were
strained. Prime Minister Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer searched
desperately for a face-saving compromise.

The Migration Amendment Bill was
devised as a way of ensuring Indonesia that
Australia would not
embarrass it again. Any Papuans reaching the Australian coast would be shipped
off to Nauru before anyone
determined whether any fears of persecution were well founded or not. Out of
sight and hopefully out of mind.

That the device was not well thought
through was apparent when Liberal Party members were able to study the Second
Reading speech in the House of Representatives by the Parliamentary Secretary to
the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb, and the
accompanying explanatory memorandum.

Those liberal Liberals who had
pressed for decent treatment of asylum seekers last year were distressed to find
that the amendments to appease Indonesia had the
consequential effect of removing many of the concessions the Prime Minister had
granted in the cause of preserving Party harmony.

Debate on the Migration Amendment
Bill is expected to be on the parliamentary agenda shortly after the House of
Representatives resumes on 13 June. That gives the Prime Minister a week to find
a way out of the situation where a brave minority of Liberals feel obliged to
vote with Labor.

The number of those crossing the
floor is unlikely to be sufficient to defeat the Indonesian Appeasement Bill in
the Lower House. The political importance of their action will be to encourage
some of their Senate colleagues to show that the Liberal Party really is a broad
church prepared on rare occasions to tell its leader that he is
wrong.

Watch for it. This is one of those
rare parliamentary moments when power might give way to
principle.

Peter Fray

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