I was sceptical when people
like Greg Barns said that the Coalition’s Senate majority would lead to
a revival of dissent within the Liberal Party. As I wrote 18 months ago
(4 February 2005), “The ten years of John Howard’s leadership have been
marked by a culture of such complete conformity that it’s very hard to
see anyone breaking out of it now.”

Well, I was wrong. Dissent
from his own party has handed Howard one of the most significant
legislative defeats of his term of office. But it’s interesting to look
at where that dissent is coming from.

Of the five Liberals who
publicly dissented from the legislation, three of them – Russell
Broadbent, Petro Georgiou and Judith Troeth – are from Victoria. That’s
probably not surprising, since Victoria is now pretty clearly the most
left-wing state (just look at the 1999 republic referendum). But they
are all from the same side in the Victorian Liberal Party.

Of
Victoria’s 22 Liberal MPs and senators, the majority are aligned with
the Kroger-Costello group. Only four are clearly identified with its
opponents, whom we could now call the “Baillieu group”. But three of
those four were among the refugee bill rebels (Jason Wood (LaTrobe) is
the fourth).

It’s often said that, in contrast to the Liberal
Party’s factions in other states, the split in Victoria is
non-ideological (I have said this myself). But the pattern here can’t
be just a coincidence, especially taken on top of Ted Baillieu’s push
for socially liberal positions. Despite their origins in personality
clashes, the two groups in
Victoria are starting to look more like philosophical adversaries.

There
are plenty of progressive voices within the Kroger-Costello group; most
of them supported overturning the ban on RU486 in last February’s
conscience vote. Nor was there any special political imperative running
the other way this time: after all, the Treasurer’s brother was one of
the busiest lobbyists against the refugee bill, and NSW rebel Bruce
Baird is a strong Costello ally. And it goes without saying that the
prospect of embarrassing the prime minister would not have concerned
them.

Nonetheless, all of them stood firm behind the
government’s line. Time will tell which of the two positions is more in
tune with that of Victorian party members.

Peter Fray

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