Tony Smith. Baird’s risk on asylum seekers

Feb 3, 2015

When New South Wales Premier Michael Baird told an Australia Day luncheon that we should be more accepting of asylum seekers, he was taking quite a risk. Baird’s federal Liberal Party colleagues have espoused the hard policy of stopping the boats which the Abbott Government declares is its greatest achievement. It is not unknown for NSW Liberals to openly state their doubts about party policy. During the Howard Government’s campaign against asylum seekers, which used inaccurate phrases such as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘queue jumpers’ and even ‘sleeper terrorists’, several backbenchers took principled stands against the more extreme aspects of government policy.

Even those observers who cannot bring themselves to vote Liberal should give credit where it is due. Although not in his electorate, I emailed Bruce Baird when he dissented over refugee policy during the Howard years to congratulate him and thank him. Such principled actions by MPs have the potential to restore our jaded expectations of the political process. Objections to Government policy by Labor MPs can seem like opposition for its own sake, and all too often such objections fail to suggest any decent alternatives.

More recently, in April 2014, I wrote to then Premier Barry O’Farrell to thank him for expressing concern about Abbott Government plans to amend Racial Discrimination legislation. Mr O’Farrell had sought advice about the possible consequences of softening laws against racial vilification, allegedly in the name of freedom of speech. These plans were roundly condemned by a broad cross-section of Australians and greeted as a sop to bigots.

It was barely a week after this correspondence that Mr O’Farrell resigned as premier. During hearings at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, O’Farrell apparently answered a question inaccurately. O’Farrell maintained that he did not remember receiving a gift of some rare and expensive wine, a Penfolds Grange Hermitage. When his error was pointed out to him, O’Farrell said that for the sake of the integrity of the office, he would resign.

Many political observers remain puzzled by O’Farrell’s resignation, thinking that there must be more to the story. Surely, his misleading answer was neither intentional nor serious. Some observers think that more would have emerged about that particular bottle of wine and/or its donor. They think that O’Farrell resigned to protect either himself or associates from further allegations, questioning and exposure. No-one though, raised the possibility of a link between O’Farrell’s stance against the proposed amendments to the RDA and his subsequent embarrassment before ICAC. Perhaps few observers are as cynical as I about the lack of ethics within political parties. Perhaps I am prone to accept conspiracy theories too readily. But one day, we will almost certainly learn more about the situation surrounding the demise of a premier who seemed to be both genuine and compassionate and whose popularity, mid-term, was as high as could be expected.

On the Labor side of politics, John Robertson’s resignation as parliamentary leader seems as premature as O’Farrell’s departure. Robertson admitted that he had written in support of the perpetrator of the Martin Place hostage situation. However, the man was a constituent and MPs write such letters as a matter of form. Before public reaction could be tested, Robertson said that he had lost the support of unnamed ‘senior colleagues’. It appears that these senior colleagues must have – as the jargon has it – ‘tapped him on the shoulder’. What is clear is that senior colleagues would be those first in line for the top job.

What also seems evident to anyone not involved in the party’s internal power shuffles is that the need to find a lower house seat for the new Labor leader created a milieu in which local party members must feel that they have been treated shabbily. Voters who became disenchanted with Labor when a number of Ministers seemed to lack a spirit of public service have been reminded of the bad old days. While Robertson might not have been an inspiring leader, under his leadership the party seemed to be regaining the discipline which made it electable during the Carr period from 1995 to the early 2000s.

Left leaning Liberals like Michael Baird embarrass the party’s Right because they are evidence of how real ‘liberals’ should behave. He must have his fingers crossed that Liberal Party power brokers think they need him too much to ditch him now with an election looming in March. The fact that Baird’s stance on asylum seekers and refugees carries a certain amount of risk makes it all the more admirable.

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