Petro’s bills – the politics

Tuesday, 31 May, 2005

Christian Kerr writes:

It will be biffo beaucoup in the government Party Room this morning when Liberal and Nationals politicians have their first chance to discuss Petro Georgiou’s plans to introduce private member’s bills that would release children, their parents, and long-term detainees into the community.

More than the content of the bills will be under debate. Georgiou and his fellow rebels — Judi Moylan, Russell Broadbent, Marise Payne and Bruce Baird — believe Liberal Party rules give Liberal MPs a conscience vote on the matter. The prime minister begs to differ. He says mandatory detention won the 2001 election for the Coalition and that mandatory detention is here to stay.

Georgiou’s bills allow long-term detainees to be released into the community until their cases are resolved. Children and their families would also be released, while people living in the community on temporary protection visas would be granted permanent visas.

Under the proposed legislation, immigration officials would only be able to detain new unauthorised arrivals for 90 days to process their claims. After that, they would have to get a Federal Court order to keep people in detention or release them into the community.

John Howard, as we have observed before, isn’t big on dissent — in his cabinet, his party, the bureaucracy, statutory authorities or anywhere. The big lesson he learned from the Fraser government and the Liberals’ years in the wilderness was the importance of maintaining a façade of unity.

Georgiou’s bills are likely to be voted down by his fellow Liberals — but he still has a Plan B. Georgiou is expected to push on with his legislation and introduce them into parliament.

The House sets aside private business time in the chamber where his legislation could be raised and debated. For this to happen, he needs to get the support of other MPs – hence his footsies with opposition immigration spokesperson Lawrie Ferguson.

Ferguson has suggested that Labor will look at a number of options when its members meet this morning. If enough Liberals are prepared to defy the prime minister and if a compromise move can get Labor and the crossbench MPs on side — if — the numbers could be there to get the matter debated.

Even then, though, the process is fraught. Only a limited amount of time is allocated to private member’s business. Government can easily delay or stop votes on private members business or use up all the allocated time by filibustering — stacking the roster with speakers and preventing a division on the matter at hand.

If — if — Labor and the independents play ball and there are enough Liberal dissidents, things could be very interesting indeed. Georgiou, Broadbent, Moylan, Payne and Baird need another eight votes from their side. Will it happen?

If it does, the history of the Howard Government — and John Howard’s prime ministership — will be entering a very different chapter.

Peter Fray

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