With the government’s “border protection” legislation expected to be voted on in the House of Representatives today, the half-dozen or so Coalition members who might vote against it are under intense pressure, with colleagues accusing them of “lying in the ditch” and “aiding and abetting the Opposition“. As Michelle Grattan writes this morning, “The courage of the Liberal dissidents is being tested, and not found wanting.”

So perhaps it’s time to turn the spotlight the other way, and look at the 120-odd Coalition MPs and senators who are going to vote for the legislation. Instead of asking “why are there dissidents?”, we should be asking “why are there so few of them?”.

After all, this legislation proposes to tear up Australia’s international obligations more comprehensively than anything that was done in the immediate post-Tampa period. And at that time the government had the excuse of a number of refugee boats arriving in a short period, plus desperate political imperatives at home.

Now it has neither. Moreover, the legislation was transparently drafted in response to Indonesian pressure – normally not a vote-winner in either the party room or the electorate.

Back in 2003, when the government was trying to have offshore islands excised from Australia’s migration zone, it was suggested that the next step would be excise the whole country. Amanda Vanstone described the idea as “a ridiculous red herring”, and even those who suggested it were probably making a rhetorical point rather than expressing a serious fear. But that “ridiculous” notion is exactly what the government now proposes.

So what has happened to the voice of conscience in the other 120 members? Are they so mesmerised by the Tampa experience that they think public opinion will continue to back anti-refugee measures, no matter how absurd? Or is conformity so deeply ingrained now that they would vote with the prime minister on literally anything?

The story may be apocryphal, but it’s said that when Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay taxes, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him and asked “why are you here?” Thoreau’s response was “why are you not here?”

That’s the question that the brave band of dissidents should be asking their colleagues.

Peter Fray

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