The Howard government’s partial backdown on mandatory detention laws points up a striking feature of the Australian political system, the iron discipline that makes a threat by four backbenchers to cross the floor and vote against the government a major news event in itself. The government was in no danger of being defeated on a vote, with a majority of 27, and in many other countries an event like this would not be news. But in Australia it happens perhaps once in a decade.
Until recently, the US was at the other extreme. I recall a news story saying that Jimmy Carter had copped some flak for refusing to campaign for any Democrat who hadn’t voted for at least half the legislation he proposed. I doubt that either alternative is healthy.
Australia’s tight party discipline can be traced back to the early days of the Labor party, when it was a third party, swinging votes between the Free Trade and Protectionist parties to extract concessions for workers and vulnerable to having individual members bought off or otherwise persuaded to support one of the big parties. Even when Labor became one of the two main parties, strict adherence to Caucus solidarity remained the rule, and was in fact strengthened. The position used to be that even a single adverse vote was sufficient cause for expulsion on the grounds of disloyalty. In some branches, this was felt to leave too much room for discretion and anyone who voted against the Caucus position was deemed to have automatically expelled themselves as a result (I’m working from memory here – I can’t find a good source)
This stringency might have made sense in the days when crossing the floor almost invariably meant siding with Labor’s conservative opponents. But in fact, as the parties converged on the issues, this ceased to be the case. Most of the handful of recent expulsions (for example, those of George Georges and George Petersen) have been for votes cast against anti-worker measures by Labor governments, though Mal Colston was on old-style rat, motivated solely by personal greed, and bought off by the offer of a job (he was subsequently convicted of corruption).
The Liberal Party used to boast that its members were free to make up their own minds, not bound by caucuses and “faceless men”. But until the latest revolt, this freedom had become a dead letter. The handful who tried to exercise it, most notably Ian McPhee, were rewarded with the loss of preselection. The idea of going against the party majority was so alien that MP Sophie Panopoulos described it as terrorism
Our system of government would work a lot better with a more effective Parliament, and greater willingess on the part of MPs would help to achieve this. Australians have responded to the dangers of tightly disciplined party control by voting for minor parties and independents with the result that unfettered control of Parliament by a single party has been the exception rather than the norm, at both state and federal levels. With the Howard government achieving control of the Senate (largely through accidents of the voting system) it is to be hoped that we’ll see a reassertion of the independence claimed by members of the Liberal and National parties.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t like to see this go to the extent that prevails in the US where there is no real party position. That leads to a situation where voters can’t make a judgement on the performance of the parties in Congress, but have to try and make judgements about the votes of individual candidates – at least one of normally has no track record.
The US system is also unstable, being vulnerable to whichever party can organise a tight-knit caucus while the other side continues to act as a collection of individuals. We’ve seen this in the last decade, with the Republicans being much more effective than the Democrats until recently.
fn1. As a leading figure in the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Panopoulos might be supposed to have well thought-out views on questions like this. If so, it speaks very badly for ACM.