Once there were moderates

Once there were moderates in the Liberal Party.

In those good old days the moderates advocated progressive policies, attempting to find a balance between market forces, freedom of the individual, social justice and protection of the environment.

It was so long ago that the names of those liberal warriors evoke less recognition today than the latest batch of Big Brother competitors. Some of those liberal luminaries – the ‘wets’ they were called – were a product of the Fraser years.

Peter Baume was at different times Malcolm Fraser’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Health and Education. It was his strong sense of social justice that caused him in later years, as Shadow Minister for the Status of Women, to cross the floor to support a bill giving equal employment opportunity in some government-owned bodies. Baume left parliament a few years later to promote progressive values in public policy, taking on roles in academia and medicine, as well as Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

As Immigration Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian Macphee was instrumental in promoting multiculturalism. He oversaw the migration of Indochinese refugees to Australia and introduced a family reunion scheme for them. Later as Communications Minister he helped establish the SBS. In opposition, Macphee crossed the floor in support of a government motion targeted at his Leader, John Howard, that race or ethnic origin should never be a criterion for becoming an immigrant to Australia. He lost preselection for his seat to the Liberal conservative (or dry) David Kemp early in the following year.

Macphee’s summary disposal was the beginning of the dearth of liberalism that we see in the Liberal Party today. During John Howard’s second term as Opposition Leader and his time as Prime Minister, progressive Liberals were given a stark choice – get with the (conservative) program or be left to wither on the backbench.

For the most part, the successors to the Fraser liberals weren’t about to be brow-beaten. Petro Georgiou (once the Director of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs that Ian Macphee helped to establish), Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Judy Moylan and Mal Washer have all stood their ground against their right-wing peers, but mostly to little avail.

Others decided to dance to their master’s tune or – to quote the Cybermen – be assimilated. It’s almost impossible to contemplate that Phillip Ruddock was one of the two other MPs who crossed the floor that day with Ian Macphee in protest against John Howard’s comments on Asian migration. Yet he and Amanda Vanstone, another moderate, later ran the Howard Government’s hard line policies on asylum seekers.

The list of known ‘moderates’ in Tony Abbott’s kitchen cabinet is equally counterintuitive. Chris Pyne was serially overlooked for promotion by Howard because he was/is a progressive (and a Costello supporter). Yet he was rewarded by Abbott for doing the leadership numbers against Turnbull and is now a Cabinet Minister. Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and George Brandis are all moderates and none did particularly well under Howard. (Anyone remember The Rodent?) Yet now they all are in the Abbott Cabinet, reciting the lines of the day.

If your mind is not yet boggled sufficiently, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is a moderate too (although apparently he attends the faction dinners of both the wets and the dries).

Is the day of the Liberal moderate well and truly over? Is liberalism dead or is it just playing possum?

According to reports the desiccated wets have – despite their assimilation and no evidence that a single word of social justice or equity has spilled from their lips – formed a cabal around Tony Abbott.

This has apparently caused disquiet in “Coalition ranks over what right-aligned MPs believe is an aversion to any policy that is not consistent with the populist agenda of certain powerful ‘moderates’ with the Prime Minister’s ear.”

Excuse me while I laugh, or cry …

If only. If only it were true.

The post originally appeared at SBS Analysis and Opinion.