Back in 2001 I took on the Howard government over its manipulative politicking on the issue of asylum seekers in the lead up to that year’s election. As a recently departed former senior staffer to that government (I had been Finance Minister John Fahey’s chief of staff from 1996-99). I had some minor cache with the media and so got my dissenting voice heard. The Liberal Party got me back though, stripping me of endorsement for a seat in the 2002 Tasmanian state election, because I continued to write and speak about the serial human rights abuse being meted out to men, women and children in detention centres in Nauru, the South Australian desert and western Sydney.

What was most frightening about the Liberal Party’s rhetoric and policies towards asylum seekers back in 2001 was that anyone who dissented was completely demonised and ostracised. Brave backbenchers Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Bruce Baird and senators Judith Troeth and Marise Payne were all castigated publicly and privately for their humane stance, particularly on the issue of the detention of women and children.

My own experience was testament to the hostility that the Party reserved for those who argued that asylum seekers should be treated with dignity. Joe Hockey, then a minister in the Howard government, rang me in February 2002, just after I was disendorsed, to tell me I should resign as National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement because of my stance on refugees, and that he had done an interview with The Bulletin saying just that. Chris Pyne, who liked to call himself a moderate Liberal, did an interview with AAP slating me for being selfish on the issue. One senior party official I ran into in Melbourne shortly after I was disendorsed told me that while he agreed that the Howard government policies were harsh, “the voters love them”.

Eight years on and can we say the leopard has changed its spots? The statements of Immigration Spokesperson Sharman Stone have a shrill and xenophobic tone about them. She blames the Rudd government for the deaths and explosion yesterday — this is emotive and without foundation. Stone won’t say whether her Party will dust off the Howard government’s mandatory detention policy, but no doubt the pollsters and strategists who have an eye for votes only and whatever cost, will urge her to head down that path. Already, Colin Barnett, the WA Liberal Premier has ineptly tried to recreate the children overboard strategy yesterday with his assertion that asylum seekers had set themselves alight — he ducked the electronic media for the rest of the day.

Malcolm Turnbull has so far managed to try and stay away from naked political opportunism on this issue, although he is muttering about “tougher” border protection today. And this is an Opposition leader with low poll ratings and facing a Prime Minister and government that can do no wrong in the electorates’ eyes.

The worry for the Liberal Party today is that Georgiou and company — the brave true liberals who stood against Howard and Ruddock — are, with the exception of Marise Payne and Judy Moylan, no longer in politics. Looking around the federal Liberal Party today, the sad fact is there are many more careerists prepared to use desperate asylum seekers as electoral fodder, than there are people of true conscience.

Greg Barns is a director of Rights Australia, a human rights advocacy group and was disendorsed by the Liberal Party in 2002 for opposing the Howard government’s policies towards asylum seekers.

Peter Fray

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