With the 260 Tamil refugees refusing to leave their boat in Western Java and threatening to set fire to it, the asylum-seeker issue is the only game in town.

Every day that Kevin Rudd delays taking a clear stand on the issue — one that talks back to the fear-mongering in the spirit of a common humanity, while affirming a country’s right to manage the process — is a day that gives the Liberals a reprieve, with or without Malcolm Turnbull.

For the moment Rudd is sticking to the carefully-crafted line of the 07 election — compassion for refugees, contempt for ‘people smugglers’ as human scum.

True in many cases, not in all — some of the “people smugglers” are the same sort of people who got Jews out of Europe in the 40s.

Switzerland was the obvious destination, and turned a blind, or at least cloudy, eye to border-crossings — until 1944, when it announced that “our little lifeboat is full.”

But whatever the truth of it, Rudd’s line is now too cute by half — it worked only when the boat-borne arrivals were diminished, and people were so desperate to get rid of Howard that they were happy not to think about the issue.

Could Rudd and his leadership circle steer hard-right and risk the wrath not only of party rank-and-file, but the increasing unease of people such as John Faulkner and Peter Garrett?

Undoubtedly he could try. The message would be old nationalist populism — possibly with a healthy dose of this new patriotism we hear so much about.

“Enough is enough” we may be told. The government has been generous but now stern measures must be taken, and those who oppose them are an elite who prefer abstract rights and cant about humanity to Aussies’ real best interests.

But once started on, there’s no way to stop that process. Kevin Andrews, the bourgeois Borgia, is already talking about an “illegal entrant visa” a sort of new-fangled “temporary protection visa” with the added advantage of defining the holder as a criminal by the very act of having the visa.

You have to be a traditional Catholic, with a thorough-going knowledge of Dante’s Inferno, to calibrate a petty Kafkaesque torment like that. And you have to be a most un-Christlike Christian — or a “cultural Catholic” as I believe they’re called these days — to believe that one can disregard the “when I was homeless you took me in” provision, whenever the visitors have brown skin.

As noted yesterday, you can’t out-scum the Liberal Party of Australia in a bastard contest. The issue is proving to be yet another occasion on which Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is being undermined — simply because his party are falling over themselves to get to a microphone and dehumanise refugees.

For the Liberals however, the issue may not prove unambiguously useful in the quest for a message, at the current moment.

Why? Because what’s coming up are by-elections in two of the most socially liberal blue-ribbon seats in the country, Higgins and Bradfield.

Bradfield is of course safe, and to be uncontested by Labor — which is the ideal occasion for a high-profile person of high public reputation to stand as a “liberal independent”, on a platform of sending a message to the party that “this sh-t has to stop”. In a more blue-ribbon mode of expression.

With the luxury of a Liberal hold, a whole range of people unwilling to vote for the Greens would then be liberated to cast a protest vote against their party.

In Higgins, the situation is even more tasty delicious. Higgins was one of the few seats to swing to Labor in 2004, a product of Mark Latham courting the “doctors’ wives” votes, and losing everyone else’s.

The fact that it’s in range with a 7% swing required is a product of that shift. With the loss of a sitting member, the general swing against the Libs in the opinion polls, and a channeling of disgust with what the party of one or two former Higgins representatives has become.

Whether the campaign preferenced Labor, or offered a split preference would depend on how Labor behaves over the next few weeks.

Who could we get to do such a Barns-storming? I wonder.

Quite aside from being a pulpit from which to bully Labor, such a campaign would punish the Liberals for any trip back to the dark side. The issue is the fault-line on which the contemporary Liberal party is going to creak in strain — a split between city members faced with demographic and cultural change that has filled their seats with prosperous but socially liberal people, and country seats they have taken over from the National (ne Country) Party, where feeling is often running in the other direction.

Beyond any fun and games in marginal seats, it will be interesting to see what response this recurrence of the issue will prompt in various places — from church groups who should be out loud and early on the matter.

From Jewish community peak bodies, to remind us what happened to the last group of people turned back in boats.

From Labor for Refugees, which should be raising hell in the branches and embarrassing the hell out of the government.

And especially from the second and third-generation Australians who are here because their parents and grandparents were “queue-jumpers” — those who bribed their way out of DP camp in 1946, pushed their way onto a crowded boat, pulled strings to get a visa and exit out of the Eastern Bloc.

Who, gasp, even paid people smugglers to get here. The basic right to fight and kick and scream to find refuge has to be affirmed. The right to seek asylum under such conditions has to be affirmed not as an aberrant example of the process, but as its essential and normal condition of being exercised.

There are no queues for them. There are no excuses for us.

Peter Fray

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