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Crossing the floor: a short history

20 Jun 2005
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John Howard made unexpected concessions last week to avert a backbench revolt in parliament. But why is crossing the floor seen as such a major step? Paul Rodan looks at the precedents

ALTHOUGH the prospect of Liberal MPs crossing the floor over a private member’s bill on detention centres has gone, it is still useful to reflect on this issue and its place in the development of the modern Liberal Party.

Obviously, the advent of the party system nearly a century ago imposed a certain amount of discipline on parliamentarians. But originally this discipline was associated more with the Labor Party than with the conservatives. While Labor’s pledge and caucus system pushed the non-Labor side in the direction of more discipline than before, the conservatives still routinely deprecated the ALP for its excessive control and indifference to MPs’ individual consciences. As a stylised division along collectivist/individualist lines, this was a fairly predictable development, and it survived the two original non-Labor parties and persisted well into the Liberal Party founded by Menzies.

Of course, it is necessary to separate rhetoric from reality. Conservative MPs were not voting against their parties on a regular basis, governments did not fall on the whim of a maverick MP and most parliamentary divisions proceeded on predictable party lines. However, there were still sufficient instances of dissent for the freedom given to MPs to figure prominently when Liberal Party propagandists contrasted their organisation with the ALP. In the cold war environment, this was further evidence of conservatives’ support for ‘freedom’ while the nasty socialists embraced Stalinist control methods.

At its height, Liberal dissent was mostly demonstrated in the Senate where Reg Wright (Tasmania) and Ian Wood (Queensland) secured a reputation for their occasional critical attitude to legislation from Menzies and his successors. It helped that they were senior figures of some substance, not party hacks, and could credibly tie their maverick behaviour to a states’ rights argument in what purported to be the states’ house. The best example was probably their opposition to the 1967 referendum proposing a breaking of the nexus between upper and lower house numbers. This behaviour was not without support in their state party branches, and their pre-selections remained safe. (Indeed, Wright became a minister.) It is hard to imagine this sort of situation today, but then again (without being too uncharitable), it is hard to envisage people of substance and independence being elected too often.

It can probably be claimed that this characteristic of the modern Liberal Party, infrequent enough in its manifestation, died before the election of the Howard government. Floor-crossers have included Senator Robert Hill (in government), and Ian Macphee (opposition) in the House of Representatives. Senator Amanda Vanstone crossed the floor while in opposition, as did Philip Ruddock. Ruddock, Hill and Vanstone have since demonstrated their bona fides as Howard government hard-liners, while Macphee is frequently cited as the last genuine liberal of any substance, whose loss of preselection signalled the end of an authentic Deakinite presence in the Liberal Party. With the triumph of the conservative element, there would seem, quite simply, a narrower range of views shrinking the potential for dissenting behaviour. And even if it is in fact not true that everyone in the Liberal parliamentary party has the same view on every issue, public disagreement is probably a worse career move now than at any time in the party’s history. Certainly, Petro and friends have no ministerial prospects.

Apart from a narrowing of views within the Liberal Party, an associated factor in the demise of crossing the floor is surely the media attitude to internal dissent. Any difference of view is beaten up as evidence of party disunity/split, to be avoided at all costs. The more mature view, that within a political party people of good faith might hold a range of views on some issues, attracts no support from our hopelessly sensationalist media. The idea of maverick backbenchers speaking their minds and calling things as they see them (and occasionally crossing the floor), such an attractive feature of the House of Commons, would be anathema to the Australian parties. Our parliamentary system must surely be the most disciplined in the ‘democratic’ world, an schievement which does us no credit.

It would now be hard to argue that the conservative parties are any different from the ALP in their attitude to dissenting behaviour, including crossing the floor. Differing views are to be restricted to the party room, or preferably kept to oneself, and pre-selection problems almost certainly await those who push their luck. Looking ahead to the new Senate, the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce seems to be suggesting he would cross the floor over issues such as the sale of Telstra. He has done a fair job of ‘talking the talk’, but whether he ends up ‘walking the walk’ (literally in this case), remains to be seen. •

Paul Rodan is a Senior Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

Photo: Andrew Jeffrey

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2005
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