View from The Hill

Mal Washer and Judi Moylan: two MPs who did things their way

Washer and Moylan have been prepared to stand up and stand out when it would have been easier to conform. AAP/Alan Porritt

In early 1998, Mal Washer was asked to seek Liberal preselection for the West Australian seat of Moore, where he’d been in general practice for more than a quarter of a century. Washer was chosen unopposed and elected later that year.

He arrived in Canberra with his practice manager Gloria Riley, and has become the affable “doctor in the House”, treating MPs across the political spectrum.

Washer, who delivered his valedictory today, and Judi Moylan, also from WA, who gave hers on Monday, are both prominent Liberal “moderates” whose voices have been important on many issues, ranging from the rights of women, here and abroad, to control their fertility to asylum seeker and detention policy.

Neither has reached high office. Washer has never been on the front bench. Moylan was briefly a minister in the Howard government, but she was dropped in 1998.

Rather, they became noteworthy for their contributions as private members, prepared on occasion to stand up and stand out when it would have been easier (and better for their careers) to conform.

Moylan in her speech paid tribute to other moderates with whom she worked closely - apart from Washer, these included Russell Broadbent, as well as former MPs Petro Georgiou and Bruce Baird.

She, Broadbent, Georgiou and Baird (as well as then senator Judith Troeth) fought toe to toe with John Howard on aspects of asylum seeker policy, extracting concessions, even on occasion thwarting him. Of this group only Broadbent will still be in Parliament after the election.

Even in her last parliamentary days Moylan continued to prosecute the case. “If we are committed to stopping the deaths at sea, in this most intransigent of political arenas, our parliament must find a way to forge a national consensus before we can possibly entertain any hope of achieving a regional consensus”, she said.

Washer’s specialties have been social and health issues. Through the cross party population development group, he was part of the push - eventually successful under Labor - to remove the ban (extracted from the Howard government by Brian Harradine who had a pivotal Senate position) on foreign aid funding abortion advice.

He told Parliament today: “We need to ensure that women throughout the world have equality, that they have the right to choose when and how many children they have and that they do not die in unwanted childbirth.

"We must continue to challenge the social, religious and other barriers to women’s rights around the world”.

He was active in the opposition to Tony Abbott’s attempt to retain his power as health minister over the importation of RU486, and in the stem cell debate (on both of which there were conscience votes).

“It is my earnest hope that scientific endeavours in [stem cell research] will one day deliver the cures we so desperately need for the cruelest of diseases affecting mankind”, he said today.

In his valedictory Washer also made a plea for a change in the drug laws. “‘Tough on Drugs’ is an easy phrase. The issues are much more complex and need sensitive consideration in line with mental health and social welfare issues”, he said.

“The use of some illicit drugs needs to be decriminalised. We are losing too many young people because they are seen as criminals and as a result do not seek medical help.

"They are convicted of drug crimes rather than being helped with the underlying causes.”

When we are talking about brave moderates we should also mention Queensland Liberal senator Sue Boyce, who is not recontesting and will leave the Senate mid-next year.

In late 2009, immediately after Tony Abbott had replaced Malcolm Turnbull, Boyce and Troeth crossed the floor to support the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. (If the Greens had got on board it would have been passed.)

This week Boyce supported the government’s plan to ban discrimination on grounds of sexuality by religious organisations running Commonwealth-funded aged care services.

The moderates are thinning out among the existing Liberal rank and file although, ironically, Tony Abbott has some who have been outspoken moderates in leading positions on his front bench – including Christopher Pyne, George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull. Of these, it is mostly only Turnbull who raises his voice in public for moderate causes these days. (He does have the special situation of being a former leader.)

If there is an Abbott government there will be a lot of onus on Turnbull, at cabinet level, to stand up for this stream of Liberal ideology.

But who will be the next generation of moderate voices on the backbench – the successors to Washer and Moylan and their ilk? Or is the Liberal party not breeding them like it used to?