Let’s hear it for Barnaby

My column in yesterday’s Fin was about the desirability of more independence and less party discipline. It’s over the fold

Some weeks after the 2004 election, Australian voters found, to their apparent surprise, that they had handed control of the Senate to the Howard government. The crucial result was in Queensland, where Barnaby Joyce scraped in to win the fourth seat for the National Party. In one of the great ironies of politics, though, Joyce has turned out to be the only member of either major party whose vote cannot be directed in any way desired by the party whips.

The rigidity of party discipline in Australia is almost unique in the democratic world. The Blair Labour government in the United Kingdom has been forced to redraft its anti-terrorism legislation after it lost a crucial vote when Labour members crossed the floor. In the United States, although partisanship has been increasing, Republicans and Democrats routinely vote against the party line.

Historically, we owe this to the Labor party. In its early days as a third party, it exacted measures in the interests of the working class by swinging its support between the dominant free trade and protectionist parties. This strategy could work effectively only if Labor members followed the party line, regardless of their own views on the issues in question.

When Labor became one of the two dominant parties, the tradition of Caucus solidarity continued, reinforced by the bitter experience of desertions and splits.

The Split of the 1950s added another wrinkle, as the rival groups within the party formed organised factions, which imposed their own solidarity rules. These factions still survive, though the ideological divisions between them have mostly disappeared. They are now little more than cliques, with subfactions named for the leaders who command their votes.

When the Liberal party was formed under Sir Robert Menzies, it was a point of pride to say, that, unlike the Labor party, dictated to by “36 faceless men� in the party conference, Liberal MPs were free to make up their own minds and follow their own consciences. They did not do so very often, but the distinction was a real one as late as the 1980s. Philip Ruddock crossed the floor on immigration, and Robert Hill went against the party line ten times.

The Liberals have now adopted Labor’s view on solidarity. The crucial event was the successful preselection campaign against Ian McPhee, the most articulate dissenter within the party (though not a particularly frequent floor-crosser). Others have learned the lesson.

Political commentators in the mass media have aided and abetted the entire process. Even critical discussion of party policy by backbenchers, a normal part of the political process a couple of decades ago, is now regarded as evidence of a fatal loss of control by the leadership, or dismissed as the activity of ‘loose cannons’. The cliché ‘disunity is death’ is treated as if it were a statement of the obvious, but it would be far more accurate to say ‘disunity in life’. Politics is about disagreement and debate, and there can be no real debate when participants on both sides are required to stay ‘on message’ at all times.

Rigid party discipline might have made sense in the past, when the two parties viewed themselves as representing radically different interests and values: workers against bosses, socialism against the free market, and so on. But nowadays, the disagreements are, in most cases, manufactured, and party policies are changed routinely at the whim of the leadership. The measures to which MPs are expected to give their loyal support often contradict the platform on which they were elected.

The House of Representatives has long since ceased to play any useful role in the process of debating and formulating public policy. At best Question Time serves as a gladiatorial forum in which the Opposition can, if it is lucky, score some points against the government, marked by the judges in the press gallery, and watched, in brief snippets, by the TV news audience.

Until July 1, the Senate played a balancing role, and Senate committees provided scrutiny of government legislation, often leading to significant improvements. Now, unless some other Coalition Senators decide to start earning their salaries, the entire burden rests on the shoulders of Barnaby Joyce, apparently the only member of the government who regards Menzies as more than a name for ritual invocation.

The problem isn’t just on the government side. Labor should take advantage of its enforced trip to the sidelines and scrap the factional system once and for all, as a first step towards getting rid of Caucus solidarity.

Rigid party discipline may have been a good idea a century ago, but today it does nothing but harm to Australian democracy.

37 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for Barnaby

  1. Katz,
    This does not represent “…a long-term and enormous change in the relationship between the factors of production.” This is simply a continuation of the process of deregulation that started under the Hawke Labor government. It is increasing (but IMHO not far enough) the freedom of contract between the suppliers of labour and the purchasers of labour.
    The discussion on mid to late medieval serfdom, while interesting, adds nothing the picture. In fact, to me at least, it tends to obscure it. None of the laws are even remotely close to the situation now. On the contrary, under the ‘unfair’ dismissal laws the workers say, to paraphrase you “you must employ me and none other, whether you like it or not.â€? This will always make employers reluctant to hire, increasing unemployment and the general cost of doing business, reducing overall welfare in the community.
    The proposed IR laws go a bit closer to, but do not reach, the ideal – “If you don’t want to work for me under the condtions that we agree on, there’s the door.â€? This is a simple modification of your proposition, the replacement of “I find acceptable” with “we agree on”. The difference is crucial.

  2. AR,

    1. It appears we are in furious agreement about the difference between serfdom and the Rodent’s IR changes. I believe that my first post on this issue says exactly that. That’s why I reject the term “serfchoices”.

    2. That â€?…a long-term and enormous change in the relationship between the factors of production.â€? I allude to is between the manorial system and modern IR practices, not between Hawke and Howard, whose principles are, as you rightly say, rather more similar to each other.

    3. Again, on the question of “work under my conditions or there’s the door”, we are in complete agreement.

    The interesting perspectives are twofold:

    1. The changing relationship between factors of production over the last 12 centuries or so. As PML hints above, this began in England about 600 years ago, but only recently became universal.

    2. The disjuncture between the economic substructure and the political superstructure (to use some venerable but useful marxian concepts), mentioned in my previous post.

    Bottom line: I don’t like the term “serfchoices”.

  3. Good to see we agree on somethings, Katz.
    I am interested in the second of your ‘perspectives’, though. I would disagree on the ‘black letter law’ points – the activities that are banned are the ones that the ‘voluntary’ unions typically use to force non-volutary behavior and that only with difficulty can be interpreted to incorporate voluntary actions.
    A 19th century punitive reflex would involve oppressing workers. Setting them free(r) from regulation and allowing them a true choice of whether or not to join a union is not a 19th century option.
    I oppose this bill for other reasons, but the reduction in regulation is a partially redeeming feature.

  4. Lately I have asked everybody I meet what they think of the IR reforms. The general response is something like this:-

    “I don’t like these reforms however I support them in the areas of x, y and z”.

    In other words most people agree with several aspects of the reforms but not the overall package.

    Of course the people I meet may not be representative of the population at large, although I don’t think it is that far off.

  5. AR, trade unions aren’t necessarily enforcers of non-voluntary behaviour of either members or non-members. Historically, and especially in Australia, that is how they evolved.

    But we’ve seen the tide of compulsory unionism recede powerfully in Australia without recourse to heavy-handed prosecution of unions. They’ve withered away. Their eclipse has occurred without violence and without confrontation and without the production of martyrs. I believe that there is a good chance that the Rodent’s reforms will stir things up considerably.

    As the libertarian that I take you to be, don’t you find it rather odd and insulting that in his IR changes the Rodent is telling employers and employees what must NOT appear in any agreement? Aren’t Australian workers and bosses grown up enough to come to their own decisions?

    What if unions evolve to take on the role of suppliers of contract labour negotiated on a corporation-to-corporation basis? One of the contractual conditions agreed to might by that for certain classes of work for a certain duration, this particular supplier of labour has exclusive rights to supply the labour, subject to certain performance criteria.

    These contracts are very common in business for the supply of goods and services and intellectual property.

    Why shouldn’t labour be organised and supplied in the same way? And why shouldn’t labour unions be permitted to perform this commercial function?

    Howard’s IR legislation would prohibit these practices, even though they are based on tried-and-true commercial principles.

  6. Katz,
    For some reason the attempt to put an ‘r’ in brackets got changed into a registered trademark symbol in the comment. I said ‘freer’ for precisely that reason. This bill does improve matters, but it is not a full removal of regulation. A conservative will not remove regulation, they will just try to reduce what they perceive to be its worst effects. One of the features of the bill I like is the reduced regulation, but I did not say that the government had eliminated it.
    If unions acted as labour hire companies with contracts etc. I would have no objection. It should be easy for existing unions to get around the bill – the union could incorporate, issue shares to the members and then act as a contract hire company. I do not know if it would then still be a ‘union’ though.
    The feature I do not like, and why I oppose this bill overall, is the removal of competition between the IR systems in Australia for corporations. I think the ability to ‘regulation shop’ is a good one; exposing the systems to competition is a good way of improving regulation. Of course, removing regulation would be better still, but there is time to move further towards that in the future.

  7. If the unions incorporated and became labour hire companies then things would get really interesting. I am pretty sure that the unions would not like doing this however. It would expose them to too many commercial realities.

  8. “I am pretty sure that the unions would not like doing this however. It would expose them to too many commercial realities.”

    Perhaps you are right Terje. On the other hand, this model of labour organisation and supply was quite widespread during the 19th century. Unions proved themselves quite capable of these functions.

    Comparisons may be odious, but the question might be raised as to whether Australian union executives are any lazier than Australian companies’ Boards of Directors are complacent, insular, and lacking in entrepreneurialism on the one hand, (think of all the Australian companies that have been bought out and taken over); or dishonest, profligate, and lacking in due diligence on the other hand. (IXL, Qintex, Bond, Onetel, HIH, James Hardie, etc., etc.)

    Is there a nation with a less edifying recent (post 1980) corporate history than Australia’s?

  9. Enron comes to mind. I am pretty sure that all nations have their white collar crooks and fraudsters. Just as all nations have government corruption and ineptitude. I think its in our geneome.

  10. I imagine some sort of objective measure could be generated.

    1. An annual tally of the proportion of total corporate market value wound up due to foreign takeover.

    2. An annual tally of the proportion of total corporate market value wound up due to board malfeasance.

    I wonder whether sloth or greed would predominate.

    Yes, Enron was a stand-out corporate scandal. It is extraordinary that the SEC would allow “mark to market” accounting as a basis for financial reporting. Yet I’d guess that even Enron represented a smaller proportion of US corporate market value than HIH represented for Australia.

  11. Katz, you’re also overlooking that the late mediaeval statutes did not aim at forcing vagabonds back to serfdom, precisely. They were free to accept any of the wider range of non-serf work that was springing up by then.

    In a similar way, the last vestige of serf-like laws in western Europe weere Danish laws barring country people from moving into urban areas before the age of 40 – but not specifically redirecting them to specific tied serfdom so much as putting them in front of a limited range of choices so they had to commit to tenancy contracts that achieved the same effect. In poorer English hundreds, the clock was temporarily halted and a quasi-serf lifestyle was the only one possible; but (say) working as shepherds or charcoal burners became ever more practical cash employments too.

    The squeeze came from the reduction in ordinary peasant alternatives, since fewer people were in fact needed by the landlords. The social aim of the legislation was to stop the new underclass swelling to a dangerous point and make the hundreds keep them tied up – it wasn’t usually to provide serf labour, although it did promote keeping cash wages for the new roles lower than they would have been otherwise.

    In the real heyday of the manorial system, it interacted with the feudal system; people werew often glad to give up their independence for security, on the bad terms of village life on offer. That’s more a condemnation of the endemic raiding etc. of the Dark Ages than anything else. One Swiss monastery was raided by vikings, magyars and saracens within a single generation, I gather.

  12. But PML, I recognise that these Vagabondage laws reflect the fact that the feudal system was under pressure in the first instance, and under severe pressure by the end of the 15th century.

    The “harrying” of vagabonds I refer to in my first reference to the feudal system was indeed to prevent disorder. Law makers didn’t care what the vagabonds did upon return to their hundreds. No doubt these law makers were motivated by fear, nostalgia, prejudice, intellectual laziness, and any number of other motives.

    One motive we can be certain they did not have was an adventurous embrace of the potential of the market economy and a desire to unlock the ingenuity and productivity of England’s labour force by instituting a free market in labour.

    The political classes in Tudor England didn’t like free markets of any kind. The trades were tightly regulated by craftsmen’s guilds. Commercial enterprises were protected by Letters Patent that conferred monopoly rights over a multitude of activities, including the performance of plays, as Shakespeare’s company of actors, and later theatre, exemplify.

    Legal banking and credit creation as legal activities were centuries away.

    Thus the political nation in Tudor times were subject to conservative impulses. Because the idea of “progress” had not been invented yet, they didn’t have to apologise for not being “modern”.

    Similarly, the Rodent’s IR changes are in fact deeply conservative in motivation, “fear, nostalgia, prejudice, intellectual laziness, and any number of other motives”.

    Another major difference between Tudor England and Rodent Australia is that in the interim the idea of “progress” has been invented. Changes cannot be justified to the popular mind unless they can be promoted as “modern”. And this is precisely what both the proponents and opponents of the IR bill have been claiming during the propaganda war. It has been a contest about who is more “modern”.

    And, of course, the concept of “progress” is one of the most potent sources of false consciousness.

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