Published in the Australian Financial Review, June 2001.
The defection of Seanator Jim Jeffords from the US Republican Party (to caucus with the Democrats) and the observation that many American politicians have ‘party hopped’ raises the question of whether there might be any comparable fluidity of personal, political alignments in Australia.
It’s an interesting question. Party discipline of MPs in Australia has been much tighter than in the United States and even the United Kingdom. Why?
Perhaps the most significant factor is that a different party structure has evolved out of different democratic models of good governance.
The Westminster system is based on a distinct ‘opposition’ and ‘government’ with an emphasis on adversarial relationships. The Australian parliamentary system is based on this model.
Yet this does not explain it all. In the UK, for example, there is latitude to voting independently on non-party lines. Usually, that’s on non-core issues. In the UK, the Whips (MPs appointed to get the other MPs to be in the Parliament and to vote along party lines) of each party issue an agenda of the week’s business, or whip, to their members. They indicate how important each item is by underlining it once, twice or three times.
If an item is underlined three times, the party expects all its MPs to be present to vote [according to the party line].
In Australia, such latitude, apart from conscience votes on issues such as abortion, has been uncommon. MPs belonging to the ALP historically have been less inclined to see their individual views as more important than those of the Caucus. The roots of the ALP in the union movement have always been stronger than the US Democrats’ links with American unions.
In Australia, this has resulted in an even stronger sense of a culture of ‘sticking together’ along union solidarity lines. In the US, there is a strong culture of being a ‘nation of individuals’. Also, the ALP has been more strategic in prising victories out of the ‘system’ through tighter discipline.
In the US, Congress and Senate members see themselves as representing their constituency more than their party. The party alignments are very weak, compared with those in Australia and most European countries.
In the US, electors can register as Democrats, Republicans, Independents or whatever. Those registered electors can vote in party primaries to select candidates. A candidate for political office can run in a primary, raise funds and win endorsement. The party machine does not select the candidate. The primary candidate can ignore head office and campaign and win. The role of the party office is therefore severely constrained in disciplining members of Congress who cross the floor or vote independently.
Apart from in local government, party jumping by representatives is anathema and uncommon to Australian politics. That’s especially so of the main parties. True, Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor before the last federal election. But that was from the Democrats.
Main party rigidities these days are in contrast to the early days of Australian parliamentary democracy. The Protectionists and Free Traders regularly exchanged party members. The Australian labour movement in some States was also strongly split between those two philosophies until a strong Labor Party was formed early in the 20th century.
In True Believers, edited by Stuart Macintyre and John Faulkner, a chapter is devoted to Labor ‘rats’. Labor prime minister William Morris Hughes and NSW premier William Holman, among others, left the party on the principle of conscription and defending ‘British civilisation’ during World War I.
Joseph Lyons sought refuge with the conservatives because he believed Labor was unfit to handle the challenges of the Great Depression.
In the 1950s, a surfeit of factional spite exaggerated differences between the major factions. Scores of MPs were expelled from the ALP and others resigned over the communist issue. The DLP lasted as an effective force until Gough Whitlam’s election as prime minister in 1972.
Crossing the floor is a regular thing in US politics, but it is comparatively rare in Australia (with Natasha Stott Despoja a notable exception – on the GST – in recent times). Those who cross the floor or – even worse – ‘rat’ are demonised. (Mal Colston is only a prominent, if easily satirised, recent example).
It is difficult to imagine [nowadays] what high issue would fracture the parties here and tempt anyone to walk to the other side of the House. Or sit on the cross benches. Yet Australia is becoming more individualistic. The ALP is less collectivist than ever before.
Does it matter to party cohesiveness or to the governing credentials of a party if someone crosses the floor on the Prickly Pear Amendment Bill or on IVF legislation? Should the UK system of ‘three-line whips’ and the like be introduced here? Will the major parties go beyond their emphasis on absolute Caucus solidarity?
Federal Labor MP Mark Latham has advocated that MPs should survey their electorates and actively seek the views of their constituency on non-core issues.
If he means what he says, he is calling for weaker party control of MPs on all issues, of large and small moment. It is unlikely, however, that much will change in the immediate future.
Old habits die hard. Besides, there is always scope in the party room to argue a case for this policy, or that party discipline does not mean there’s no internal democratic process. The health of that process, however, can be significant not only to the ability of the parties to claim electoral support, but also to the hold they have on their MPs.
As I have argued elsewhere and as I have long thought, the Australian party system, especially on the Labor side, should allow greater discretion for MPs, especially on “non essential votes” (admittedly an area of occasional contention as to what might be really important) to vote according to conviction. Jim Jeffords (1934-2014), mentioned at the beginning of my article served as a Senator from Vermont from 1989-2007, elected on the Republican ticket, but in his last six years he served as a Democrat-leaning Independent.