Throughout January, a ginger group of 25 federal Liberal backbenchers, led by Victorian senator Mitch Fifield, pushed the cause of tax and welfare reform through the media, including this newspaper. It’s the first time since John Howard took over the Liberal Party a decade ago that backbenchers have put their heads outside the confines of the party room to take their case for change in government policy to the public.
This development should provide those in the Liberal Party who believe that human rights should be at the front and centre of government policy with a green light to similarly go public in their criticisms when the Howard Government undermines human rights.
MPs such as Marise Payne and Bruce Baird from NSW, former aged care minister Judi Moylan, and Victoria’s Petro Georgiou, who languish on the back bench because they have stood up to the Prime Minister over the past few years on issues such as the treatment of refugees, should let the community know that when the Government gains control of the Senate on July 1 the principles of tolerance, freedom and respect for human rights will not disappear.
After July 1, it will take only one or two Liberal senators to cross the floor and vote with the minor parties and the ALP to defeat Government legislation. This was something that confronted Malcolm Fraser when he was prime minister and controlled the Senate. Fraser’s government knew that people such as the quintessential Victorian liberal Alan Missen might do just that if his conscience dictated it was the right thing to do.
Reduce diversity of opinion
And during the 1980s, when the Liberal Party was in opposition, it was liberals such as Ian Macphee, Peter Baume and Fred Chaney who curtailed the impact of the Liberal Party’s social conservatives on matters such as immigration and women’s rights. Until now it has been easy for the liberal wing of the Howard Government to know that the Democrats could combine with the ALP and independents to throw out legislation that impinged too heavily on people’s freedoms. But on July 1 that important role will fall to them.
The Howard Government is likely to use its Senate majority to extend mutual obligation-based welfare “reforms” to those on disability pensions, legislate for more workplace relations “reforms” that will further tip the balance in favour of employers over employees, introduce more anti-terrorist legislation which will erode the legal rights of individuals, and propose media ownership law changes that could reduce diversity of opinion.
All of these matters involve the erosion of human rights, tolerance and freedom. The liberal wing of John Howard’s party needs to indicate that it will examine each bill on these matters, and any others of a similar flavour, with an eye to protecting those core liberal values.
If proposed laws directly threaten freedom, tolerance and human rights, liberal MPs should tell the Howard cabinet that they will cross the floor to defeat the proposal in question. It will take only one or two Liberal senators to cross the floor to defeat Government legislation.
Such a group of genuinely liberal MPs could start their year by arguing against the proposal floated in January by Queensland backbencher Steven Ciobo to wean unemployed Australians off welfare by replacing the dole with food stamps and utility credits that could not be spent on gambling, alcohol and cigarettes.
A liberal group should tell Ciobo that his proposal is offensive to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It ignores mental illness, disabilities, educational and learning difficulties, illness of family members and loved ones, and the range of other legitimate reasons that prevent people from working.
The hour of the liberal wing of the Liberal Party is arriving. At last, after 10 years in which the party has become captured by the conservatives, those Howard Government MPs who believe their job is to preserve and enhance liberal values can now use the most potent weapon of all – threatening to vote against the Government in the Senate and knowing that such a threat will make a difference.
Greg Barns is a former Howard Government adviser, member of the Australian Democrats and author of What’s wrong with the Liberal Party? (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This article was first published in The Age