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The focus on national security can dull dissent in political debate, but it still exists in both major parties and the PUP. By Sophie Morris.

Internal discord dogs PUP and major parties

Labor’s federal member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, addresses protesters gathered in Perth’s CBD.
Credit: NEWZULU

It was a reasonable turnout for a Wednesday night. Some 150 people filed into the ANU lecture theatre to hear Labor MPs Melissa Parke and Anna Burke castigate their own party for failing refugees.

Parke started with an apology.

“Anna and I are members of a political class that has let Australia down,” she said. She spoke of “negative bipartisanship” that had put in place a “grotesque system” for dealing with some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

She went on to support a view, put earlier this year by right-wing Labor senator Sam Dastyari, that history would not look kindly on Australia’s current refugee policy.

“There will come a time – and I believe that time has already come for a lot of us – when Australians will be as ashamed of this period as we are of the White Australia policy, but I add that this generation doesn’t have the excuse of ignorance,” she said.

From the earnest audience, came some murmurs of “shame”. She was preaching to the converted, of course. 

In a party that is attempting to be disciplined and that has been wary of any difference with the government on matters of national security, Parke has emerged as something of a dissident, albeit perhaps a licensed one. 

The former United Nations human rights lawyer has been allowed to speak publicly on a range of matters, from refugee policy to questioning the rapid escalation, without UN approval, of Australia’s involvement in the US-led military mission in Iraq.

On the latter, she told parliament this week: “Fundamentally this is an issue of human security, and does anyone believe you can ensure the security of humans by bombing humans?”

The government can never resist highlighting Labor “weakness” on border protection but, to his credit, Tony Abbott has not sought to exploit apparent ALP divisions on Iraq, perhaps because he realises that questions will inevitably arise on his own side as well. At the Coalition party room meeting this week, after he described Australia’s objectives in Iraq as stopping “avoidable genocide” and curbing terrorism, three Coalition MPs voiced concerns about the duration of the deployment and whether ground troops would eventually be involved.

It has been a week for internal dissidents, across both major parties and one minor party. 

The Liberals’ resident right-wing provocateur, Cory Bernardi, reignited the debate over banning the burqa, arguing it should not be worn by visitors to Parliament House. 

Bernardi also teamed up with crossbench senators David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day to sponsor a bill pursuing changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that the prime minister had killed off in the interests of uniting “Team Australia” behind tougher counterterrorism laws. 

And let’s not forget Jacqui Lambie, whose inflammatory speeches about how those who back sharia should “get out” of Australia have put her at odds with her party’s leader.

There has been little debate, though, over the prime minister’s stark warning on Monday that, in this current environment, freedoms must be traded in the name of national security.

“Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift,” he told parliament. “There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protections for others.”

Rumour has it there are some small-l Liberals who are uncomfortable with this turn of events, but if there are really still some of that persuasion in the parliamentary party, they seem at the moment to prefer to remain really still.

Bernardi’s and Lambie’s outbursts have been tolerated by their parties thus far in a precarious senate where every vote counts and any shift in allegiance could alter the power balance.

Parke plays a different role, as Labor navigates an awkward environment in which its options for criticising the government are circumscribed by its desire to be part of Team Australia.

She provides an alibi for Labor to avoid a loss of votes to the Greens as it joins the government in backing tougher terror laws and military action in the Middle East and continues to offer bipartisan support for offshore processing of asylum seekers. Some Coalition MPs argue Bernardi plays a similar role in placating those Liberal supporters who were disappointed that Abbott abandoned the 18C changes.

As Labor leader Bill Shorten stresses that he is “working very well together” with Abbott on national security, it doesn’t hurt to have at least one opposition MP putting an alternative view. It’s a fine line, though, as left-wing Labor senator Sue Lines discovered late last month when Shorten rebuked her for accusing the government of using the threat of terrorism to deflect attention from the budget.

Back in May when Parke and Burke first raised their intention to pursue a caucus motion on ending offshore detention, there was frustration among Labor MPs at the timing, distracting as it did from the backlash to the budget. The motion was destined to fail. 

Some also feared that, by reopening the debate, Parke was risking exposing Labor to attack over whether it was strong enough to manage the electorally sensitive issue. 

But Parke is not a loose cannon and her recent statements have been carefully worded. Even dissent in modern Labor is often tightly scripted. Although Dastyari’s remarks on refugee policy earlier this year were reported as pitting him against Shorten, his speech had in fact been vetted by the party’s leadership. 

There was a time when others in the Labor leadership team from electorates with similar demographics to Parke’s seat of Fremantle were equally outspoken.

Back in January 2003, Anthony Albanese wrote to his constituents in Grayndler to challenge the decision of the then prime minister, John Howard, to send troops to the Gulf ahead of a UN determination that military action was required in Iraq.

“By sending our troops to the region, the government has guaranteed Australia will be at war, if it occurs. This is happening without a vote of the parliament and without the support of the Australian people,” he said. “It is not in Australia’s national interest for the prime minister to have signed us up to a US-led war.”

The situation in Iraq may be different, but Albanese’s concerns about the absence of a parliamentary vote could equally be raised today. 

However, the official Labor position supports the government’s troop deployment for a “humanitarian” mission, which is expected to include air strikes, and makes no mention of a vote.

A recent meeting of Labor’s national security committee, comprising Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Stephen Conroy, Chris Bowen, Richard Marles and Mark Dreyfus, outlined the conditions for Labor’s support for military action in Iraq.

The committee wrote a four-page explainer that was circulated to caucus members, laying out these conditions and the case for why the situation is different to 2003.

“Labor agrees with the international community’s assessment that military support is necessary to respond to the humanitarian crisis effectively, to prevent genocide and mass atrocities and relieve suffering,” it says. “Our support should cease if our engagement is not effective or if the Iraqi government and its forces adopt policies or engage in actions that are unacceptable to Australia.”

Broadly, Labor’s position aligns with the government’s, which has also ruled out ground combat units fighting in Iraq and said there is no reason at this stage for Australia to participate in action in Syria. 

But the opposition wants to differentiate on some detail, arguing, for instance, that extra visas for refugees from Iraq and Syria should be in addition to Australia’s existing humanitarian visa program, currently set at an annual 13,750 places.

Parke, for her part, reckons humanitarian and refugee visas should account for up to one-quarter of Australia’s entire migration program of 200,000.

At the forum on Wednesday, Anna Burke – the feisty former speaker of the house of representatives – questioned whether the military action in Iraq could lead to new refugee flows. “We need to see if we’re actually compounding the refugee problem by going and bombing other countries,” she said.

As the Coalition secures Clive Palmer’s support for its new temporary protection visa regime and concludes a deal to send asylum seekers to Cambodia, Labor will be forced to grapple again with how it approaches refugee policy.

Parke and Burke spoke hopefully on Wednesday of a growing push from Labor rank-and-file members for an overhaul of the party’s refugee policies at its federal conference next year.

Time will tell if they are outriders at the vanguard of future policy change or remain as dissidents at odds with party policy. But for the moment it appears Labor has little appetite for another bruising brawl on asylum seekers, just as it is anxious to avoid a fight over national security.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "The great divide". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.