Yesterday, Judith Troeth, a Victorian Liberal Senator serving out her last term after a distinguished career as a party official and MP, spoke eloquently about the need for the Liberal Party to come to terms with the damage it did to thousands of people who sought asylum in this country. Troeth crossed the floor of the Senate to support the Rudd government’s bill which would end the practice of charging asylum seekers for the cost of their stay in Australia.

In contrast, Troeth’s colleague from New South Wales Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who has been in the senate only five years, remained mired in the politics of contempt and fear with a speech about how dangerous it will be for the government not to continue to impose such crushing debts on asylum seekers.

There is no doubt in the mind of most reasonable people that harsh policies towards asylum seekers such as this breached Australia’s international human rights obligations, divided our community and trashed our reputation as a liberal, tolerant democracy. It appears the Australian community – once supportive of these harsh policies courtesy of Mr Howard and the Liberal Party scratching the fearful and xenophobic underbelly in the marginal seats of this land – has now moved on.

The Rudd government’s softer approach is not driven by human rights, but by polling which shows that the fear campaign has run its course.

Senator Troeth and her colleagues Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Judy Moylan and the now retired Bruce Baird have always known that the Liberal Party’s moral compass had been lost on this issue. They have for many years now been brave voices who have opposed the detention of women and children in particular and forced showdowns in the Liberal Party caucus.

When I spoke out against the Howard government’s asylum seeker policies and was disendorsed by the Tasmanian Liberal Party back in early 2002 Troeth, and her likeminded colleagues, did not shun me which was in stark contrast to Chris Pyne, the South Australian self styled small l Liberal who castigated me publicly for my stance.

Despite Troeth’s crossing the floor yesterday and making a stand for decency, the reality is that the Liberal Party en masse has not, as she implored it to do yesterday, “grasp[ed] a new opportunity to understand the difference between sending the wrong message to those who truly wish us harm, and the right message to those who need our help.”

The sentiment Troeth expresses is supported by Georgiou and co but these are people at the tail end of their political careers.

The Liberal Party of the future was on display yesterday via Fierravanti-Wells’ defensive rhetoric about the need to send tough signals to would-be asylum seekers. She was joined in opposing the Rudd government’s decision by newish ‘moderate’ Liberals like George Brandis and Mitch Fifield. The latter two had a chance to break with the past by joining Troeth in crossing the floor, but they could not bring themselves to do so.

On the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers the Liberal Party looks a little like the US Democrats of the early 1960s. The majority of that party in those days was still wedded to the policies and legislative infrastructure of racial discrimination, but a few politicians such as President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers could see that such a stance was morally and politically bankrupt. They moved the Democratic Party forward, despite opposition and losing votes in the South. But by confronting the evil of their past stance they ensured their Party can take the moral high ground today against its opponents on race.

There is a lesson in that for the federal Liberal Party, but only Judith Troeth and her small band of lower house colleagues get it.