A smart leader knows when the cause is lost

Sydney Morning herald
August 15, 2006

John Howard wanted the new border protection laws but not at any cost, writes Gerard Henderson.

TO THE Howard haters in our midst, the Prime Minister is an unrelenting ideologue. Yet John Howard's decision yesterday to withdraw the new border protection legislation underlines an essential pragmatism which has been central to his success over the past decade.

The Coalition's time in office can be divided into two periods - the years between early 1996 and June 30 last year, when the Coalition lacked a majority in the Senate, and the time since then, when the Coalition has had the numbers in the Senate, but only on what Peter Costello has termed "a good day".

Clearly yesterday was not a good day, in the Howard Government's sense of the term. The signs were that the Liberal senator Judith Troeth was likely to vote with Labor, the Greens, the Democrats and the Family First senator Steve Fielding. Such a move would have ensured the defeat of the legislation. The bill would also have gone down if any two of Troeth, her fellow Liberals Marise Payne and Russell Trood and the Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce had decided to abstain.

Howard can count. The odds were that one of the scenarios would have come into play, with Troeth crossing the floor the most likely. Failing that, it seems that at least two Coalition senators would have abstained. Howard realised the vote was almost certainly lost, so he junked the bill and cut his losses.

It was a smart, albeit belated, move. Newspoll says the Coalition leads Labor by a factor of two to one on which party is best-equipped to handle national security, of which border protection is a part. In this sense the high-profile debate over the most recent migration legislation has been very much a concern of Canberra players and Canberra watchers - politicians, public servants, advocacy groups and journalists.

It is doubtful the issue has had any significant impact in the outer suburbs and regional centres where next year's federal election will be decided. Electors who believe the Government is essentially correct on border protection are unlikely to change their vote because of one backdown. What's more, those voters who maintain that Howard is too tough on the issue are not likely to become Coalition supporters because of yesterday's decision.

When the Government was dependent on the independents and some Democrats to get its legislation through the Senate, Howard was willing to accept about 70 per cent of what he really wanted. This was the case with the initial tranche of the Telstra privatisation, along with the first round of industrial relations reform, the new taxation system (including a GST) and more. Now the Coalition has the numbers in the Senate, Howard will take 100 per cent where he can: for example, the Work Choices legislation and voluntary student unionism. But he is not willing to go into battle for a lost cause, as was the case with the migration bill.

It was not widely known that the moves to reform the mandatory detention system, which began after the 2004 federal election, were initiated by Howard, along with his office and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The change was not driven - in the first instance, at least - by Senator Amanda Vanstone and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Certainly the reform process was hastened by the revelation of the department's appalling behaviour in the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon cases. But this was not the impetus for change in the administration of mandatory protection policy.

Subsequently, Howard reached agreement with four Liberals - Judi Moylan, Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Bruce Baird - on long-term reform of mandatory detention. All was quiet until a boat of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived on the Australian mainland in January and its passengers were granted protection visas.

This caused too much excitement. Initially the Greens, with some refugee advocates, church organisations and commentators, attempted to associate the asylum seekers with the cause of West Papuan independence. So, on arrival in Melbourne after release from detention, the West Papuans were filmed waving the Morning Star independence flag. This was counterproductive, if only because Indonesia has no intention of granting independence to West Papua and neither the Coalition nor Labor favours the break-up of Indonesia.

At this stage the Government overreacted. Certainly the Australia-Indonesia relationship is extremely important. However, the arrival of one boat did not warrant a substantial upgrade of the already comprehensive border protection laws, especially since this required Howard to effectively junk the agreement reached last year with Moylan and her colleagues.

Howard wanted the legislation, but not at the cost of a defeat in the Senate, along with continuing animosity in the party room. So he stepped back and the legislation was withdrawn - a sensible decision which provides time for both sides in the debate. It needs to be established whether Jakarta is involved in persecution and killings in West Papua. And only time will tell whether the January arrival was a one-off or whether it set a precedent.

So common sense prevailed. The likes of Moylan had their understanding honoured and Howard can always re-introduce the legislation. Meanwhile, the electorate has seen another example of Howard the pragmatist. Stand by for more such occurrences as next year's election approaches.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

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