Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Friday, November 25, 2005

Solidarity for ever

John Quiggin says today:

The rigidity of party discipline in Australia is almost unique in the democratic world....

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. The Liberals have now adopted Labor’s view on solidarity....

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 is 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.... 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.....

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.

Chris Says:
  1. Consider, though, the effect of senatorial independence in America, where the party system is comparatively weak, candidates raise their own election funds, and cross-party votes are the norm; the effect is to make every senator worth bribing individually, leading to a precipitous decline in standards. In Australia you have to buy an entire party or nothing, which at least provides a minimum cutoff.

    The deeper problem is that Australian public political theory—the ideals that politiicans appeal to when talking to the public – hasn’t moved beyond 1760. We haven’t really accepted the full implications of the party system.

    Australians are encouraged to think that MPs vote their consciences, which by a happy coincidence agree with the party line; any MP saying “I don’t believe in this motion, but I’m going to vote for it anyway’ is doomed.

    And I don’t believe any political system can operate on the basis that everybody in the house follows their conscience at every point without tradeoffs – “You vote for mine and I’ll vote for yours” – that are under that public theory immoral.

    In theory, wider debate and more independence in votes aren’t necessarily connected – that was what cabinet secrecy and cabinet solidarity were supposed to ensure.

    However, wider public debate is virtually impossible under this theory because it necessarily involves some people—those on the losing side – having to vote in the House against the position they put earlier in the party room, and thus being reproached for toadying, hypocrisy, cowardice, etc.

  2. And another thing...
    As I remember my Bagehot, the primary function of the House isn't to set policy, it's to serve as an electoral college for the executive - like the American electoral college, except that they're allowed to change their minds between elections. Though if we haven't caught up with the 1760s I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we haven't caught up with the 1860s.

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