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Discipline in the House

By Natasha Cica - posted Monday, 16 April 2007

No MP worth their salt can be at complete ease with every policy stance taken by their party. But the more unease in the ranks on any given stance, the greater the danger posed to the party as a whole, according to accepted wisdom.

That's why so-called conscience votes have been allowed in Australia on questions seen to drive deepest to the core morality of individual MPs. Abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technology, stem cell research, capital punishment, family law, homosexuality, drug reform, war crimes and gambling - but not asylum seekers, national security legislation or other questions engaging civil liberty and human dignity - are the kind of topics on which Australian MPs have not been formally whipped into party line.

It is also why critical eyes are already turning to next month's federal Labor conference and speculation has started running about which body will fall where on hot button issues, identified as uranium mining, forestry and industrial relations. As Michele Grattan wrote in The Age recently, Kevin Rudd needs a conference battle or two, convincingly won, to reinforce the appearance of kingly control, and cannot afford serious unscripted stoushes.


But why can't he? Might Australians be hungrier than is generally assumed for some hearts and minds debate, beyond the confected biff recently decried by Carmen Lawrence in announcing her retirement from party politics, and ready to respect a bit more difference of opinion? Especially on subjects that matter to themselves, their families and generations to come?

If so, then Labor might be setting itself up for continuing problems, both in this campaign and in future government. After the 2007 conference deals are done and dusted, Labor MPs will be locked into policy positions. And because some are worth their human salt, and despite the positive spin Peter Garrett tries to put on the Faustian pact that's part of being a party player, internal unease is likely to linger. As leader, Rudd will do his best to keep a lid on it, but John Howard will do his own best to wedge the tin open. As a tried and true master of suppressing healthy and principled internal dissent, Howard will home in on the Opposition's weakest links on that front.

For Labor, ironically, those weak links now include its formal pledge binding all members to support the party platform and accept the collective decisions of the caucus. It's right to observe that Coalition MPs rarely exercise their right to cross the floor of Parliament.

Despite last year's dissident voting stance by Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan on immigration legislation, the so-called bastion of individualism that is the Liberal Party is a long way from the glory days of Tasmanian senator Reginald Wright, briefly a junior minister under Gorton and McMahon, who crossed the floor a stunning 150 times in his 28-year parliamentary career, and his Queensland contemporary Senator Ian Wood, who managed 130 crossings. Yet the point of difference remains that Labor MPs take that pledge, on potential pain of expulsion from their party, while Coalition MPs do not.

Excommunication is a powerful and effective disciplinary sword, as Tasmanian state Labor MP Terry Martin recently discovered when he crossed the floor alone - on the Lennon Government's legislation to fast-track Gunns' proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill. Martin cited poor governance and ethics as part of his objection to the process driving that legislation. Because of Martin's grassroots popularity and statement of commitment to core Labor values, he has been allowed to remain a member of his ALP branch, but has been bumped from caucus to sit as an independent.

That kind of farce reveals Labor's loyalty pledge to be as anachronistic as the 19th century temperance movement's dictum to swear off drinking alcohol. Both are colonial relics. Labor's pledge was introduced in its earliest days, when it was a minor, pro-worker party fearing loss or attrition of its candidates and members to free trade and protectionist parties. Even though Labor grew into a major political force, the founding mentality stuck, and strengthened.


The oft-stated rationale for retaining the pledge is that it binds the parliamentary membership to keep faith with the will of its conference, and in turn with the rank and file party membership. Why not revisit how well that rhetoric matches today's reality - including for members such as Martin and other self-styled true believers? Labor should put that on its 21st century agenda.

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First published in The Age on April 10, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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