Date created: 12/4/07
Last modified:12/4/07
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John Quiggin

Hung up over party line

Australian Financial Review

24 November 2005

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.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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