The recent RU486 debate saw many people in the community comment on the high quality of the parliamentary debate. Many people also wondered why we don’t see a similar high quality of debate on most issues before Federal Parliament, and some have called for a much more regular use of conscience votes so that MP’s can speak and vote the way they really feel instead of towing a rigorous party line.
In the real world, the frequency of conscience votes is going to remain low.
However there are lessons we can learn from the RU486 debate and things we can do to nurture greater public confidence in the institution of parliament.
Australia, of course, has adopted most of the British parliamentary traditions. One we have never adopted, however is the graduated system of parliamentary discipline, whereby MP’s have varying degrees of discretion on their votes depending on the importance of the vote to the Party leadership.
Under this system, there are three different categories of vote.
A vote known as a one line whip is effectively a conscience vote, where the party takes an in principal decision on a matter, but members are free to vote however they wish.
In a two line whip, the party takes a view, and members are expected to vote the party line, however there are no penalties imposed on members who fail to vote or cross the floor to vote with the other side (except for ministers, shadow ministers and parliamentary secretaries who are bound by collective responsibility and must resign if they feel they can not vote with the party).
In a three line whip, full party discipline is imposed and all party members must vote with the leadership, on pain of expulsion.
The origin of this terminology is very simple. The chief whip writes to all party MP’s telling them of up coming votes. The amount of underlining on the letter lets MP’s know of the status of votes, i.e. a note that is underlined once means a conscience vote, a note underlined three times sends the message: “turn up and tow the party line, or you’re out of the party”.
Introducing such a system in Australia would have far reaching ramifications, but would be a fairly simple procedural matter. The leader of each party would determine the level of party discipline on each vote, in consultation with the respective chief whips. The caucus or party room could be asked to endorse this decision.
Most votes would be two line whips. One line whips would be reserved for matters of conscience, and three line whips for matters of high principal, for matters which formed an important part of an election policy, or for important financial matters such as tax cuts.
What benefits would such a system have?
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