Friday, June 24, 2005

Sophie's Chalice?

Some members of parliament say what needs to be said. They speak their mind and follow their conscience regardless of party affiliation. They say what is right even if it means compromising their political career in the short term. That is their choice.

Other members are more concerned with factional loyalties and personal ambitions. They speak against their conscience and say what they know is wrong, hoping the consequence will be an early ministerial guernsey.

After reading the AAP report on 15 July 2005, I can only presume Victorian Liberal MP, Sophie Panopoulos fits into the latter category.

I first met Ms Panopoulos in 1993 when I had some involvement in the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF). In those days, the NSW Young Liberals were ruled by an allegedly moderate “Group” of people. Their socially conservative opponents tended to congregate around university Liberal clubs and ALSF.

In those days, being socially conservative was no excuse to throw away one’s conscience. Most conservatives supported multiculturalism and a generous refugee program. They spoke with pride about a conservative government’s role in allowing hundreds of thousands of European refugees during the 1940’s and 50’s, many without proper paperwork or passports.

They were proud that the Fraser government allowed tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees to enter Australia during the 1970’s.

But 3 years ago, there was a change in the guard. The conservative faction of the Young Liberals was hijacked by a minority of inexperienced branch-stackers prepared even to adopt religious intolerance and racism if it meant create new branches and staying in power.

For these stackers, mandatory detention is an excuse to recruit members from the remnants of One Nation and from religious groups fearful an invasion by “Muslim hordes”. Ideology means little to these young neo-Cons. Numbers are all that matter.

Indeed, I would suggest that if I could guarantee the creation of 20 new branches across Western Sydney from local Hindu, Sikh and Muslim youth groups, members of the NSW Young Liberal Executive would happily don turbans and mantoos to make it happen.

I would like to think that Ms Panopoulos is not associated with that bunch. I would also like to think that she is aware of the issues. I would like to think that she has visited detention centres and spoken to staff and inmates. I trust she has read the various reports on staff morale and on the occupational health and safety hazards at the centres. In short, I trust she has read the materials which her colleagues in Victoria and NSW have read.

Her background is, I understand, Greek. Thousands of Greek Cypriots were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the Turkish intervention in 1974. Many went to Greece. Some came to Australia. The government did what was right and allowed these people to stay. They were not locked up in detention centres in the middle of the desert.

Sophie does have a point. She is quoted as saying: "If you spit the dummy because the vast majority of the people in your party won't agree with you and you in effect behave as a political terrorist, well I think you actually lose credibility, I don't think it's a bad sign for the party at all."

I agree. But an even worse sign is if people feel they can no longer follow their conscience without sacrificing their political ambitions. It bodes ill for a Party established on the ideological foundations of individual liberty to be forcing MP’s to vote like nameless sycophantic members of a Politburo.

Millions of Liberals applaud what the Howard government did to stop the boats. It had to be done. But the boats are now stopped. The dangers of Taliban terrorism and Baathist Iraqi rule are behind us. The policy reasons taken to the 2001 election are no longer relevant. Pauline Hanson is too busy strutting her stuff on stage, and we no longer have to look like her in order to attract her voters.

The Liberal MP’s behind the private members bill are not political terrorists. They are not the ones exporting brown-skinned citizens to Filipino nunneries. They are not insisting children be locked up, or that Kashmiri Christians only be released to receive psychiatric treatment.

As for credibility, this is a long term political investment. A day is a long time in politics. Mr Howard surely must know this. He probably still regrets the comments he made in 1988 about Asian immigration. He gained instant celebrity status, but his long term credibility was compromised.

It seems Mr Howard has not learnt his lesson. It also seems his younger colleagues like Ms Panopoulos wish to repeat his mistakes. In the longer term, wiser heads will prevail. Mr Howard will not be PM forever. The moderates and sensible conservatives in the Liberal Party will not go away.

Sophie Panopoulos may choose to attack the minority in the party room now. In the long term, she may regret her choice. Sophie’c choice may become Sophie’s chalice.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney-based industrial lawyer. He was a member of the NSW Liberal Party State Council from 1995 to 2001. He chaired the Council’s Law & Justice and Multicultural Affairs Policy Committees. He also was Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the Federal election in 2001, achieving a swing of over 5% on a 2-party preferred basis.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005