With winter drawing to a close in the northern hemisphere, European politicians are again turning their minds to the refugee question. With little hope for an early settlement in Syria, it’s expected that the advent of warmer weather will bring a new mass movement of refugees through Turkey and into the countries of the European Union.

Last week’s EU summit, in addition to finalising a deal that’s supposed to keep Britain in the EU, spent its time, without success, trying to work out a way to deal with the refugee influx without completely trashing the Schengen principles of freedom of movement within the EU. Central European countries in particular are pushing for such drastic solutions as expelling Greece from the Schengen zone.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the liberal/centrist group that holds about 10% of the seats in the European Parliament, has produced its own plan for action on the crisis. The seven-point program includes such things as developing the EU’s own coastguard, a common asylum procedure for the EU and a huge aid package to support refugees with processing, on site, in Turkey.

The ALDE plan is not a manifesto for open borders; it’s a pragmatic political document. But its whole tone is non-punitive: while trying to allay fears in Europe about the arrival of refugees, it is also about accepting Europe’s responsibility for asylum seekers and trying to maximise the support and assistance they receive.

Which leads irresistibly to the question of Australia’s own refugee problem. The numbers involved are several orders of magnitude less, and we have vastly more land available on which refugees could be settled.

Yet our level of anti-refugee hysteria seems little less than Europe’s.

Where are our voices of pragmatic compassion?

We have a Liberal Party, whose name proclaims its common intellectual heritage with the ALDE parties of Europe. How has it drifted so far from the realms of the rule of law and common decency? The truth is that we have a Liberal Party but not a liberal party. Our Liberals have shunned Liberal International, the worldwide organisation of liberal parties with which ALDE is affiliated, in favor of the conservative International Democrat Union, once chaired by John Howard. And its anti-refugee policies, of course, have been warmly seconded by the Labor opposition.

This is symptomatic of a broader problem. We have no natural go-to party on what used to be regarded as the core liberal issues of peace, multilateralism, democratic reform and individual liberty. This is the role that liberal parties play in most of the world — not always well, not without sometimes making invidious compromises, but at least offering an alternative view.

We do have the Greens, and with around 10% of the vote nationwide it might be thought they offer some sort of parallel with ALDE in Europe.

But not only do the Greens come from a rather different intellectual tradition, they are not part of the political establishment.

Unlike liberal parties in most of the developed world, the Greens are still on the fringe, bearing the hallmarks of a protest movement rather than a serious political player. That is starting to change and may change further, but for now it prevents them and their policies from being seen as mainstream.

If Malcolm Turnbull is serious about bringing Australia into the 21st century, this is a gap that he needs to address. Not just for the sake of the refugees — although that is surely important enough — but for giving Australian voters a genuine choice, unlike the competition in brutality we have become used to.

We won’t know until after the election whether Turnbull really wants to make his party live up to its name. But if he does, he will find a heavy weight of conservative inertia against him.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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