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Imagining representative democracy

By Anthony Marinac - posted Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Is it possible the RU486 debate gave us a momentary, teasing glimpse of the democracy we might have had, and might still have if we had the courage to grasp it?

I watched the debate in both Houses quite carefully, and what I saw was a parade of parliamentary backbenchers who had quite clearly struggled personally with the issues at stake. They had consulted with their constituents and trusted advisers, wrestled with their consciences, laboured over speeches (although who came up with “permeate through the annals of our nation” for Senator Joyce?), and delivered them with force and sincerity.

Sure, leaders and ministers spoke too, but it was the backbenchers who impressed me.


At the end of the day the division bells rang out in each House and parliamentarians found themselves sharing a bench with their traditional foes. And when the counting was done, the government position was defeated. (OK, it was a private senators’ bill, and a conscience vote - let’s say the position supported by the Prime Minister and the Health Minister was defeated.)

The result was that a minister lost powers which he had previously held - and, staggeringly, the sky didn’t fall. Was it supposed to? Well, in a way, yes.

The ironclad party discipline which characterises politics in Australia has reached the point where prime ministers have virtually unchecked authority over their backbench, subject only to the potential for a leadership challenge. The philosophy holds that the government (that is, the prime minister) must win every vote at any cost. Crossing the floor, even on something as minor as the division of a schedule in a trade practices amendment bill, is national news.

By all accounts, after the Prime Minister had made his views known, and the Health Minister had declared the RU486 vote to be a motion of no confidence in himself, the loss of the vote should have raised a parliamentary ruckus. Yet it did not. Before the House of Representatives chamber had even cleared from the final vote, normal service had resumed.

After RU486, I began imagining - always dangerous - a parliament where, instead of declaring “conscience votes”, the parties declared “party votes”.

On the bills critical to the government’s election platform or supply bills, or censure motions and confidence motions, the party could require all of its members to toe the line.


On other bills which may be important within their policy confines but hardly amount to a test of the government’s capacity to govern, the party could refrain from calling a party vote, allowing its members to do just what they did for RU486 - test the electorate, wrestle with their conscience, debate in committees and the chamber, and finally vote in the national interest.

In reality, the government would win most of those votes as a majority of members in each House are government members and can be expected to support their leader more often than not. But there might be amendments and speeches from government members stating that they will support the bill - but reluctantly.

Government members might be more ready to join with their colleagues to implement committee recommendations for amendment. And the occasional delegated instrument might be disallowed. These outcomes would be inconvenient for the government, but hardly fatal.

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About the Author

Dr Anthony Marinac is a graduate of the University of Queensland Politics Department and an executive member of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group. He is Director of Research in the Senate Procedure Office. The views expressed are his own.

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