Crossing the floor

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[1]

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.

26 thoughts on “Crossing the floor

  1. Having considered your post I have come to the conclusion that the best model isn’t that of US party culture or that of the ALPs caucus pledge but that of the Liberal party. Of course things like a conscience vote should be decided by the Prime Minister.

    Certainly the most important thing and the whole reason for having parties is that people know what they are voting for, whereas you point out that you can never be sure unless you scrutinise the voting records of individual parliamentarians, the party membership giving a rough guide only.

  2. PS.

    More parties with party unity are better than fewer parties dominating, that way people really know who they are voting for.

  3. Now, now, JQ, doing guilt by association with monarchists. I know you’ve got a blind spot in this area.

    But I shall, of course, fact check what you assert about SP in any case.

  4. “it is to be hoped that we’ll see a reassertion of the independence claimed by members of the Liberal and National parties.”

    If Petro Georgiou and the others had held out any hope for promotion to the ministry under John Howard, they wouldn’t have done it. As it is, Georgiou’s pre-selection is under threat. His fate appears to rest in the hands of a certain Helen Kroger, President of the Victorian Liberal Party, and ex-wife of Michael Kroger, who is a close friend and political ally of Peter Costello and a former President of the Victorian Liberal Party, who of course engineered the de-selection of Ian Macphee, amongst others. (Kroger is now married to the daughter of former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock.)

    Kroger and his ex-wife are on the same factional side, despite the termination of their domestic arrangements. Georgiou’s fate would appear to rest with Peter Costello, who might or might not choose to spare his career – if he does, will be only to annoy John Howard.

    Meanwhile Sophie Panopoulus, who shows even less subtlety in the political arena than her fellow countryman Spiros Arion did in the wrestling arena, has ended up with mousaka all over her face. She will not be pleased that Howard caved in to the ‘terrorists’.

  5. I understand (but have not confirmed) that the Democrats have a policy wherein all members are allowed to vote with their conscience, but if they do so, they must report to the party with their justification. This frex. is how we got the GST IIRC. I don’t know what the report involves and what ramifications may ensue…

    Subject to the nature of the report, that seems to me a much better alternative than only being allowed to differ when the Prime Minister lets you—which seems to me to basically be if the PM wants to lose a vote but make it look like he tried, he can call a conscience vote. Which is very much John Howard’s style, anyway.

    In any case, I’m very much disappointed that Georgiou did not stand his ground. I think Australians will pay over the next two and a bit years for it; OTOH we may now see the true Liberal Party and finally have some sense knocked into us (I just hope its not too much sense; not enough to give us a Labor majority in both houses).

  6. Apropos this, I recall the Papua New Guinea Parliament in the 1980s discussing a constitutional amendment which would prevent MPs resigning from their current political party and joining another party *more than once per month*!

    Never heard if the amendment was passed.

  7. T. Alexander McLeay; the Australian Democrats Constitution does say that. You cant find their constitution on their website, but has a copy of it.

    Section 11.3 covers it;

    # 11.3 Conduct of Parliamentary Representatives
    (a) An elected member of Parliament shall adhere to the policies formulated by this Party:
    # except that where the views of an elected member are in conflict with party policy, then the elected member may vote according to his conscience;
    # and where, in the opinions of an elected member, his duty to his electorate is in conflict with Party policy, then the elected member may vote according to his duty to his electorate.
    (b) When an elected member recognises a conflict between either his conscience or his duty to his electorate and the Party policy, then he shall furnish a statement accounting for his position to his Division Executive, for their information.
    (c) When an elected member votes against the Party policy, then he shall at the earliest opportunity, furnish a statement accounting for the reason why he so voted to his division Executive.

    Hopefully that allformats correctly.

  8. UK MPs rebel all the time, particualry Labor ones and it hasn’t stopped Labor winning three elections in a row. There is even an entire website on parliamentary revolts:
    The preoccupation of the Labor factional groupings in student politics with ‘binding caucuses’ on policy as well as candidates has been unproductive I think.

  9. John has fingered the right original culprit, but his analysis doesn’t really explain why the Liberal and National Parties have tended to move towards the Labor position. The reason for this I think lies in the way the media construct political debates, and that politicians then allow their practices to be constructed by the media reporting.

    Glen Milne speculated yesterday that Petro Georgiou’s rebellion may well have increased the popularity of Howard’s government. I think he’s likely to be correct. As long as internal debate and occasional floor crossing doesn’t make the party line incoherent, there are benefits from allowing members to exercise a conscience vote.

    Voters are more sophisticated than the light versus dark reportage of journalists gives them credit for.

  10. As the Irish joke goes, if you want to go there you shouldn’t start from here.

    JQ is correct in his implication that the ALP’s adoption of the Labor Pledge way back in 1900, binding MPs to support of the Labor platform set the standard for iron party discipline unequalled anywhere in the western world.

    But the most important reason for iron discipline is the centralisation of control of party functions by the executives of the parties. This is power has different sources in different parties. The nett effect, however, is that local branches have virtually lost control of pre-selection of MPs.

    MPs therefore don’t answer to local constituencies. They answer to Head Office and they are subject to bullying and blackmailing by a legion of party machine apparatchiks who answer to Head Office.

    Until local constituencies take back their power to select candidates, individual conscience will continue to be sacrificed to careerism.

    On the topic of Sophie Panapoulos and her remarks about “political terrorism”: with a mouth like that she’ll never need to use an explosives belt.

  11. Again is it just me or does this all smell of Howard political genius.

    He is a man that has his position because of his leadership and sticking to his guns. Now in the case of mandatory detention is this just a way of changing the policy without seeming to be backing down? Get a group of ‘rebel’ MPs to force the change. And as another poster has noted he will probably end up more popular. After all it was not his fault the mandatory detention rules that were popular with a lot of conservative voters were changed, it was the ‘rebels’.

    Perhaps I need to get a life.

  12. Cameron Riley; The ADs constitution is available on their website, but is perhaps a bit hard to find.
    T. Alexander McLeay; The Democrats balance to parliamentarians not being bound by party solidarity is that all parliamentary seats are up for pre-selection by a ballot of members of their electorate at every election. There are no safe seats. If you annoy a majority of the members you will likely lose pre-selection to someone more likely to stick with the party line.

  13. PrQ,
    Just a quick rebuttal on Ian McPhee – a few years ago I spoke with some of the preselectors on his committee and the reason he was dis-endorsed (at least as they saw it) was that he was arrogant towards his local party members and they did not like him. The ‘rebellion’ only meant he lost central support and pressure, but even if he had that behind him he may not have won anyway. The person who won the seat had been working on it for a few years and was more popular in the branches.

    I would agree with some of the other comments, though, the foundation of this is the Labor Pledge. The reason it is in the Liberal Party now is that the current PM enforces it in the Party room because he dreads the perception of disunity that, in his opinion, sank the Fraser government.
    The fact (IMHO) that the dissenters in Fraser’s Government were right does not enter into it.

  14. I think some people misunderstand the reason for the ALP binding caucus. It lies in its collectivist origins as the political wing of the labour movement. ALP MPs are delegates, not representatives, of the labour movement. They are obliged to support the policies and the platform of the party as set by the National Conference.

    I think a binding caucus is a good concept, the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. It is a collectivist notion that ALP MPs participate in the debate in caucus but the cost of this privilige of participating in and influencing the debate in caucus is that they are bound by what the majority decide. This discipline gave the ALP great advantage in the early years of federation and would still serve them well if they actually represented the labour movement and followed the national platform of the party.

    Unfortunately as power centralised in the parliamentary labour party, this commitment to collectivism declined.

    FYI the only issue where a conscience vote is allowed is usually on abortion style issues. And this was a sop to the stricter Catholic section of the party who could have potentially split if there were bound to vote with the more progressive majority on women’s rights. I think it is a joke incidentally that it is allowed.

  15. Again is it just me or does this all smell of Howard political genius�
    “Glen Milne speculated yesterday that Petro Georgiou’s rebellion may well have increased the popularity of Howard’s government�
    Howard is certainly a very competent politician. I have concluded after this last strategy that as long as his opponents tell themselves that he is a disciple of Ann Raynd he is unbeatable.

    A thought for Beazley
    “He who has a thorough knowledge of himself and the enemy is bound to win in all battles. He who knows himself but not the enemy has only an even chance of winning. He who knows not himself and the enemy is bound to perish in all battles.�

    I think the following can be found in Howard.
    “Do not allow your formations to become separated.�
    “Effective strategies must constantly change according to the situation of the enemy.�
    “Thus, those skilled in manipulating the enemy do so by creating a situation to which he must conform.�

    The guy goes to sleep every night clutching Sun Tzu.
    A final desperate thought for the anti-Howard hopefuls.

    “Thus the one who is capable of gaining victories by modifying his tactics according to the changes in the enemy’s situation can be considered as divine.�

  16. Sun Tzu! You don’t need Sun f***ing Tzu with Bomber Beazley and the intellectual giants like Swan ably assisting him to electoral suicide. Check out today’s opinion polls!

    As for those lovely wet squishy Liberals – I am looking forward to their preselection in a couple of years – do they really represent the views of those who got them where they are today? I don’t think so.

  17. At the last ALP State Conference there is appears evidence of interference at a high level in that a motion unanamiously voted for by the Health Policy Committee was stymied prior to the Conference Debate.

    The Motion would have endorsed the legality of a person’s Advance Directive or Living Will. Meaning a person’s wishes regarding their life and death choice was to be given Statutory Recognition.

    This failed to eventuate because the person with the responsibility for tabling the recommendation at Conference failed to appear. Perceived democracy in the Labor Party has failed the sub branch members and left some wondering about the value of “belonging to the group”.

    My website gives an indication on my feelings on the diary page, dated May 27, 2005.

    I am not happy with politicians who use the ordinary man to achieve power and then forget their relevance.

    However, I am very happy that four Liberals have made their presence felt in such an important issue as Mandatory Detention. Good on them.

  18. tut tut JQ- accuracy! The notorious and humungous Mal Colston was only ever charged with fraud (and not corruption) but he never faced trial because the independent DPP was conned into believing his death from cancer was imminent. It took a further 4 years. The only court in which he was convicted was that of public opinion.

    I have no doubt that the independent DPP’s apparent benevolence was in no way swayed by the debt that the Government owed to Colston for his votes in the Senate…

  19. The Last Word

    By Anne Elk

    John Howard hasn’t given anything away. His government have maintained complete control over matters and not much extra indpendent scrutiny has been applied. It is all about micro mangement where the minister and the department have as much unfettered power as they can get away with. How humane or otherwise the official policies are isn’t as important.

    In this case the minister and department have been given more power. And you should ask yourselves if, regardless of whether you support some kind of mandatory dentention or not, do you trust DIMIA and Vanstone with more power and ‘flexibility’ and ‘discretion’?

  20. The whole thing has definately made the government’s position stronger. Howard’s policy now has the total support of the party as well as softening his image to the public. It will be much harder to mount another push for a change in policy from the inside.

    And Sun Tzu’s words are very, very applicable to politics, especially with the current situation.

  21. Nic – if your comment about Sun Tzu was directed at me then you have read me wrong. As a Armoured Corps Officer of 13 years in the ADF I am well aware of Sun Tzu and the wisdom in his writings (We Armoured Corps types spent years trying to get the Infantry dominated Australian Army to grasp manoeuvre warfare, that draws on Sun Tzu and Liddel Hart, as opposed to attrition warfare. Fortunately they have seen the light, they now have to learn to think at modern speed – faster than walking pace.). And I fully agree that his insights apply to politics as to war (paraphrasing Clausewitz – war is an extension of politics/diplomacy buy other means). They also apply in business, sport, relationships . . .

    As I was saying – with Bomber at the helm and the idiotarians backing him up, JWH hardly needs to be appearing weak where he is strong and strong where he is weak – just stand back and watch them implode on themselves – not much Sun Tzu in that!

  22. Don’t know how Nic read you Razor but you gave me a chuckle.
    As you clearly know more about Sun Tzu and Clausewitz than I do I will retire.

  23. This appears to be one of the areas where JQ’s heart rules his head and he stops enquiring further when conclusions check out against his prejudices. (Which probably applies to all of us as part of the human condition.)

    Here, he is taking Sophie Panopoulos’s hearsay views as a generic condemnation of breaching the party whip, and is taking the expression “terrorism” in an edited form.

    From what I can see of her reported remarks, she condemned crossing the floor as a tactic to get one’s own way after faailing to get it in an orthodox way, i.e. as a breach of fairness – not condemning it as, say, a conscience issue (on which she was silent). She may or may not accept that as moral, but – rightly or wrongly – she thinks this wasn’t one of those cases but rather an arm twisting sort. It is open to us to disagree about that, but not to accuse her of a generic insistence on party loyalty.

    On the terrorism accusation, she used terms like “in effect”, using that as a modern parallel. Again, one may disagree with the colourful language, but I would no more suppose that she was stating an equivalence than I would suppose JQ literally and precisely wants Amanda Vanstone to freeze in hell – though there is more of a case for that, since JQ did not qualify his language even as much as SP did. If anything, both are guilty of remarks that were susceptible to misinterpration and in arguably poor taste, but JQ even more so. Particularly since he attempted to associate monarchists with his implied set of values.

    Now, at this point I can only refer people to googling on what the likes of the ABC have about SP’s remarks, but I may have the opportunity to ask her for clarification at a public sometime during the next few months – I believe she will be down here in Melbourne for that sort of thing quite soon. Or perhaps someone else can make an independent enquiry.

Comments are closed.