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Crossing the floor

July 28th, 2016

Back in the day, it used to be claimed as one of the glories of the Liberal and National Parties that their MPs had freedom to vote as they chose, while Labor MPs were bound by Caucus solidarity, except in the case of an explicit “conscience vote”, which has been traditionally confined to issues of (sexual) morality.

I had the impression that his freedom was now only a memory in the LNP, but this story has George Christensen threatening to cross the floor over the government’s superannuation reforms. The defeat of a key budget measure in the House of Representatives is (I would have thought) tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the government. Nevertheless, the story goes on to cite Barnaby Joyce as defending Christensen’s right to vote against the government and says that Joyce himself has crossed the floor 28 times.

I’m genuinely bemused here. If it’s OK to vote against budget policies, what can it mean to say that Liberal MPs are not free to vote as they choose on equal marriage? What is the penalty for doing so? If there is none, why don’t we see anyone willing to do so?

Labor’s position on these things in my opinion, wrong. A Labor MP who crosses the floor is deemed to have automatically expelled themselves. This might have made sense a century ago when Labor was a third party needing tight discipline to survive and when the Parliamentary party was bound by party policy. Nowadays, the official policy of the party can be overturned at the whim of the party leader. The only cases I can recall of expulsion involve members defending party policy against betrayal by the leadership, such as that of George Petersen.

Still, at least Labor is clear on demanding obedience to the party line. As far as I can tell, the LNP position is that rightwingers get a free vote, but moderates are bound by the majority. Can anyone clarify?

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  1. Jim Birch
    July 28th, 2016 at 15:13 | #1

    In the LNP it depends on whether anyone is willing to “get you” for it. The only people with the need to get you for breaking solidarity are on the right wing of the party, who have a more dog-eat-dog survivalist perspective on life.

    Labor, OTOH, has a cultural heritage of clobbering scabs to protect union action.

  2. GrueBleen
    July 28th, 2016 at 15:21 | #2

    @Jim Birch

    Yeah, I’ve occasionally wondered what the ‘feminist’ movement could have achieved if only it had been able to apply union ‘discipline’ to its ‘in name only’ supporters.

    The Labor – and even more so the Labour – movements had far too many “blue collar tories” not to have to apply serious discipline (even if it was only ‘Coventry’ much of the time).

  3. Robertito
    July 28th, 2016 at 16:14 | #3

    It appears that Jarnaby Boyce crossed the floor only as a senator: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-20/nationals-cross-floor-to-send-message-to-coalition-counterparts/6334014. I think he did it mostly as a protest measure. I’m not sure if he ever actually defeated any government bills or got any opposition bills over the line (and I don’t quite have the interest to find out).

    As a Nationals senator, crossing the floor every now and again makes a whole lot of sense, particularly on issues of agricultural protectionism. It allows you to be seen to make a principled stand without any party political cost.

    The two things that might make me consider swapping my membership of the Greens for a Labor membership (he said, as if Labor was desperate to have him on board) would be political donations reform and an end to enforced bloc voting (what is it actually called?) in the parliament. Bloc voting for one party basically entails bloc voting for the other party in a two party system, since it’s not feasible for one party to appear disunited where the other is cohesive. A culture of crossing the floor would possibly obviate the need for a third party in Australian politics, in my view. There is even a possible universe in which I could vote for a Liberal candidate ahead of a Labor candidate if the incumbent had a good or very poor voting record.

  4. Ernestine Gross
    July 28th, 2016 at 17:20 | #4

    “If it’s OK to vote against budget policies, what can it mean to say that Liberal MPs are not free to vote as they choose on equal marriage? What is the penalty for doing so? If there is none, why don’t we see anyone willing to do so?”

    There is no evidence that the coalition MPs are not free to vote on marriage equality. Setting aside the few self-declared strong objectors within the Coalition, it is conceivable that the rest are indifferent. If they are indeed indifferent (reflecting the preferences of most people in their electorates), then they are also indifferent to taking a vote in Parliament or not. A plebisite is an expensive (to tax payers) means of getting the topic of the table (and presumably this is o.k. with the majority of the people in their electorates). The PM’s past statements on this matter are quite consistent with the above.

    On the other hand, the superannuation budget policy is, IMO, the only policy which goes against the objectives of the priviliged few. As such I anticipated a backlash from this segment of coalition supporters. Mr Christensen may be the MP who is prepared to stick his neck out on behalf of others to get the ball rolling.

    My question is, why does the ALP not support the superannuation budget policy? Who stops ALP MPs crossing the floor? After all, this policy is the only substantial policy we can expect for some time that works against further wealth concentration.

  5. Lt. Fred
    July 28th, 2016 at 19:14 | #5

    If you don’t have strong party discipline you run into Obama’s problem circa 2008. People have voted for you to do X, but (conservative, asshole) members of your own party demand “compromise” (even though they were elected with the same platform). You instead pass X-1, which isn’t quite the same. It also takes much longer, so you don’t pass A, B, C and D as well.

  6. John Goss
    July 28th, 2016 at 19:27 | #6

    I’m sure that Labor will support the superannuation reforms if it is necessary for getting them through the HOR and the Senate, and probably even if it isn’t necessary.

    I note John Quiggin’s comment from his previous post that he doesn’t expect much from this Government.
    I agree we are not going to see much, but we will see some changes. And many of those changes will come from Labor and the LNP acting together.
    So we will see same-sex marriage legislation passed, even though we will have to go through an unnecessary plebiscite. We will see most of the refugees on Manus and Nauru resettled in third countries within 3 years, because decent politicians on both sides want that to happen. We will see full implementation of the NDIS.
    I also expect we will see some changes for the better on climate change policy because changes many of the States are making, and market forces, will force the LNP Government to move slowly in a rational direction.
    There will of course be many thing left undone that should have been done, but I do not expect this Government will do much more harm in this term – partly because the Senate will constrain it. And it will not undo the great harm it has already done in the first 3 budgets of the Abbott/Turnbull Government.

  7. Dave Smith
    July 28th, 2016 at 23:33 | #7

    Yes seems like the right wing is the tail wagging the dog in th LNP. The moderates have little power.

  8. July 29th, 2016 at 09:54 | #8

    If you don’t have party discipline it becomes worth buying MPs retail, as in the US, as well as than wholesale, as here; and I think (though I’m open to argument) that this means the amount of corruption goes up, not down.

  9. dedalus
    July 29th, 2016 at 10:58 | #9

    The LNP super policy is certainly the furthest that party has gone towards reducing tax advantages to the wealthy. But 2 points should be noted.

    First, it follows the policy thrust espoused by the Labor party (and the Greens). Labor had for a long time been advocating tightening of concessions at the higher end. Surprisingly, the Abbott government followed this lead to some extent by increasing the pensions asset threshold, and reducing the asset cut-off. This tweaking of the thresholds advantaged poorer pensioners and disadvantaged richer ones. Nevertheless, the LNP changes under Abbott, and now Turnbull, are very much a “Labor” type initiatives.

    The second point is that in one sense Labor’s own policy is harder on rich retirees in one single respect: whereas the 2016 Budget imposes a tax of 15% on amounts in super accounts in excess of $1.6 million, Labor’s policy proposes to impose a 15% tax on EARNINGS from super funds which exceed $75k. This effectively means that the 15% tax would cut in at lower gross amounts in a retiree’s super fund under the Labor policy than it would under the LNP’s policy.

    The LNP policy has a lot more parts to it than does its Labor counterpart. But all up, rich retirees would hate both parties’ policies: a good thing from a social equity perspective.

    While the LNP’s super policy is, on the face of it, an improvement on what one might have expected given the propensities of the Coalition, there are nevertheless some insidious elements buried within their overall suite of retirement policies. Cutting of various pieces of the social safety net, changes to pension indexation over time, are just 2 of the ways in which working class people get subtly screwed to the advantage of their richer cousins.

  10. GrueBleen
    July 29th, 2016 at 14:53 | #10

    @ChrisB

    Yes, but I want to know why voting “along party lines” in return for monetary assistance to get elected doesn’t already constitute “selling your vote”.

    It sure looks like a blatant commercial arrangement to me.

  11. Beethoven
    July 29th, 2016 at 15:07 | #11

    @dedalus

    Labor’s own policy is harder on rich retirees in one single respect: whereas the 2016 Budget imposes a tax of 15% on amounts in super accounts in excess of $1.6 million, Labor’s policy proposes to impose a 15% tax on EARNINGS from super funds which exceed $75k. This effectively means that the 15% tax would cut in at lower gross amounts in a retiree’s super fund under the Labor policy than it would under the LNP’s policy.

    Not really. If you have $1.6 million in your super account, and you get an annual return of 4.7%, which is about what you’d expect, you’ll earn $75K. Either way, you’ll pay nothing on the first $75K and 15% on earnings above that. The two policies are close to equivalent. Labor’s is a bit better conceptually (because the tax base should be earnings in theory) but the government’s is a bit easier to administer. They are both still quite generous.

  12. Ernestine Gross
    July 29th, 2016 at 17:55 | #12

    “Nevertheless, the LNP changes under Abbott, and now Turnbull, are very much a “Labor” type initiatives.”

    For the record, the tax minimisation aspects of the superannuation rules was highlighted in the Financial System Inquiry (Murray Report).

    As Beethoven pointed out, the relative merits of Labor’s and the Coalition policies regarding reducing wealth concentration depends on the rate of return on superfunds.

    However, it is merely a tradition to consider earnings as the relevant tax base. Inheritance taxes and other forms of wealth taxes are levied on asset values. There are circumstances (high degrees of wealth concentration) where earnings become less important as a tax base.

    I take it that Labor MPs would cross the floor to get the superannuation legislation through without being watered down.

  13. July 29th, 2016 at 23:27 | #13

    Yeah, I guess that taking money from the rich is a betrayal of the coalitions core values, so voting against it is just fine.

  14. Collin Street
    July 31st, 2016 at 10:55 | #14

    While the LNP’s super policy is, on the face of it, an improvement on what one might have expected given the propensities of the Coalition, there are nevertheless some insidious elements buried within their overall suite of retirement policies. Cutting of various pieces of the social safety net, changes to pension indexation over time, are just 2 of the ways in which working class people get subtly screwed to the advantage of their richer cousins.

    What particularly struck me was the way the lifetime concessional contribution limit relatively advantaged those who are how-to-say-this financially secure younger.

    [if you’re interested in income-streaming, the appropriate test is annual. If you’re interested in balances in excess of need, the appropriate test is on the total balance [or you could institute a tax on balances unused at death]. We have better proxies for anything we think is problematic than “total lifetime contributions”; if you’re dealing with someone who’s got form for making tricksy deals and is a selfish arsehole, and they make an offer the full implications and justification of which you’re pretty sure you don’t understand, it’s I think a reasonable precautionary principle to reject it.]

  15. Ikonoclast
    July 31st, 2016 at 12:32 | #15

    The whole privatisation of superannuation and/or the creation of private superannuation as a special industry with special rules was pointless and unnecessary and only led to further financialisation of the economy. Under our current broad system (the really existing mixed economy), there was always the option for an individual to save and invest for the future if that individual had the spare income or wealth to do this. There was no need for a specialised superannuation industry as such, or specialised rules for superannuation investment. The standard rules and regulations for all investment were in theory adequate with the proviso of course that financial deregulation overall should not have been pushed nearly as far as it was.

    Where individuals did not have enough income or wealth to save for their aged future they should have been covered by a nationalised super system. Indeed, logically, a pensions system / national super system would have been created as an amalgamated or integral system. The national pension /super system would mandate contributions for an eventual standard pension based on current income and assets . In the final analysis everyone who could afford contributions under the test would have to make them at an approved rate. The monies would be taken with tax. In turn, all people would be guaranteed full pension at retirement age without any test. Those who had more money and wanted to invest that privately could do so.

    There should be no special tax rules or special advantages for self-funded retired people. They should be treated like all self-funded people earning income without effort under the current mixed economy system. These statements are made while not positing any serious change to the current mixed economy system. So I am limiting my position here and not making a socialist argument (as I would normally make) but simply a mixed economy argument which would see a more nationalised statist superannuation/pension system running alongside the more standard private enterprise and free market economics system.

  16. GrueBleen
    August 1st, 2016 at 16:30 | #16

    @Ikonoclast

    Your #15

    Speaking as one who perforce participated in the compulsory super scheme and sorta benefitted from it, Ikono, it may be worth recalling that it wasn’t actually created as a super scheme as such, but more as a way to pacify the unions with a wage rise that wasn’t a wage rise because wage restraint.

    Here’s what a formee treasurer had to say about it:

    “Prime Minister Hawke and Treasurer Keating signed an accord with the ACTU, led by Bill Kelty, out of which grew an agreement on superannuation. The unions had shown willingness to act on wage restraint, and the Government wanted to ensure that workers received a lasting benefit in return. Under the agreement, wage increases would be split between cash for workers, and superannuation. The agreement was met with intense opposition, inside and outside the Parliament, but it was an agreement worth fighting for. Keating and Kelty fought for it all the way to the High Court, and they won. ”

    And that, you see, is why it was a ballsup of a system initially (and not heaps better now) – it took time before the scheme came to be taken as existing in its own right as a super scheme (cf USA 401(K)).

    Here’s some other stuff wayne Swan also said about it:

    “Australia’s superannuation system is one of Labor’s proudest and most enduring achievements. Our $1.5 trillion national pool of superannuation savings puts Australia at a unique national advantage. It was a critical factor in helping Australia avoid the worst of the GFC, by ensuring that business had access to capital to keep our economy going, while others faltered. But more importantly than that, our superannuation system gives millions of Australians the peace of mind that they’ll have the savings for their retirement.”

    And you can surely believe the world’s ex best treasurer, can’t you ? BTW, I think it’s maybe around Au$2 trillion now, or about 25% more than the total value of all the shares on the Aus Stock Exchange. So what are all the Super Scheme managers – including self-managed super – investing in now ?

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