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The government has another, simpler option to return this Tamil family to Biloela

If the government took the logical course – to draw a line under the issue, and make an early decision on humanitarian grounds to send the family back to Biloela – what would be the consequence? Yes, there would be a couple of days of “backdown” stories. Not the end of the world for a government receiving extensive criticism over the more immediate issue of the vaccine rollout. Maybe some in the Coalition’s base mightn’t be happy but it’s hard to see them changing their vote.

Priya Murugappan with daughter and Tharunicaa in Perth Children’s Hospital.

Priya Murugappan with daughter and Tharunicaa in Perth Children’s Hospital.

There would be a relieved family, with the pause button on their lives released, and a happy local community. And we could say that the values Australia is supposed to stand for had – at last, ever so belatedly – come to the fore.

Morrison and his government like to talk a lot about values. But it’s action that matters. One depressing aspect of this affair is the negative message it sends about Australia, which we want to be seen as a compassionate society committed to upholding human rights.

And then there’s the message about the Liberals as a party. Once, within memory, the parliamentary Liberal Party had a strong, vocal and courageous band of small-l liberals willing to speak up for the decent treatment of people without protections, notably (but not exclusively) asylum seekers.

Ask John Howard, for whom the likes of Petro Georgiou and Judith Troeth, among others, were sharp thorns in his side.

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Where are the small-l liberals now? More or less an endangered species. Those who exist in the government’s most senior ranks – Payne would probably count herself as one – are rather like people who used to actively practise their religion but now have become nominal believers. Payne, for example, was reluctant about receiving public praise for an initiative on foreign aid. She feared the “base” being upset.

It is possible cabinet ministers such as Payne and Senate leader Simon Birmingham, also regularly named as a leading moderate, speak up in the government’s inner sanctum. If so, they make sure the door is not just closed but locked as well.

When Morrison meets US President Joe Biden during the G7 summit, he could inquire how the President is progressing with his effort to reunite families who (in the words of the US administration) “were unjustly separated at the United States-Mexico border under the prior administration”. The process is slow and difficult. A report released this week indicated more than 2000 children were waiting for reunions, and only a handful had been reunited so far. It is a huge effort, with all sorts of policy ramifications and obstacles.

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Yet our government fiddle-faddles over the fate of a single family when, objectively, there are no complications.

Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This an updated version of an article first published by The Conversation.

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