The election of Malcolm Turnbull as federal Liberal leader has been interpreted by many as a sign that the Liberal Party is seeking to move away from the hardline conservatism of the Howard years. Is this thesis correct? The way in which Turnbull and his party respond to the arrival in the past few months of six boat-loads of asylum seekers will say much about the direction of the Liberal Party.
No issue defined the Howard government and the Liberal Party he led as much as the treatment of asylum seekers. John Howard and his party shamelessly demonised asylum seekers and played to Australia's xenophobic underbelly in the lead-up to the 2001 election when it created the so-called Pacific solution to keep asylum seekers from entering Australia. So extreme was the policy that for the first time since Howard was elected in 1996, Liberal MPs Petro Georgiou, Judy Moylan, Judith Troeth, Bruce Baird and a handful of others broke ranks and publicly campaigned against the compulsory detention of men, women and children.
Former Liberal leaders such as Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Nick Greiner despaired at the Liberal Party's hardnosed approach.
The Liberal Party benefited from its hardline stance towards asylum seekers, with the policy appealing to voters in critical swinging marginal seats in western Sydney and south-east Queensland. This forced the ALP to effectively run dead on the issue.
It was this policy that confirmed that the Liberal Party was now a deeply conservative force in Australian politics.
Turnbull's politics are more liberal than conservative, evident most recently in his strong support for US President-elect Barack Obama, in stark contrast to Howard's criticism of Obama as being soft on terrorism.
Turnbull has an opportunity to demonstrate to the electorate that the Liberal Party is once again a party that walks down the middle of the road, as its founder Robert Menzies thought it ought to be, if he resists the temptation to play nasty politics on the asylum-seeker issue.
In the past five months, six boats carrying about 150 people in total have been intercepted in Australian waters and the image of desperate people from ravaged countries such as Afghanistan is once again making headlines. The latest boat carrying 47 people was taken to Christmas Island on December 8. While all this is in line with previous years, what has changed is that the media have again taken to giving high-profile coverage to the issue, therefore elevating asylum seekers again in the community's mind.
No doubt there are many Liberal MPs, strategists and members of the conservative commentariat who will urge Turnbull to immediately whip up another fear campaign of the type that Howard so successfully engineered in the 2001 "Tampa" election. The Tampa was a Norwegian ship carrying desperate asylum seekers whom it had rescued from drowning, which Howard refused to allow access to Australian waters.
In these uncertain economic times such a campaign of fear would likely fall on some fertile ground for an opposition Liberal Party that is still having trouble adjusting to the fact that it is no longer on the treasury benches. The lines would be simple - the Liberal Party is tough on asylum seekers and Labor is soft.
Until now, Turnbull has shown relative restraint on the issue, although last week he echoed the views of his immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone, who regularly hammers Immigration Minister Chris Evans as being soft on people smugglers.
There are worrying signs that the federal Liberal Party would be prepared to use asylum seekers again for their short- term political ends, irrespective of the fact that it would once again fuel division, racism and resentment in the community.
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