Crossing the floor

Crossing the floor is the stuff of which parliamentary heroes are made.
                                                                              Fred Chaney (1994) 

This essay started life as an attempt to convince ALP members in the Federal Parliament that perhaps they should consider their options and cross-the-floor to vote against Julia Gillard’s 18 Carbon Tax bills. Sounder council suggested that perhaps I was on the wrong track. The real question isn’t should they cross the floor — but why they can’t

You would imagine that with something like 70% of the electorate being opposed to the new Carbon Tax there might be a tendency for federal members of the ALP to at least consider expressing in parliament, the wishes of their electorate. They known how most people feel about the tax. They know Julia Gillard promised not to introduce a Carbon Tax. They know they fought the last election under Julia Gillard’s “no Carbon Tax” banner. 

It seems it gets down to a thing called the “solidarity pledge”. 

In some States, it’s listed on the back of ALP membership cards. The pledge says nothing about exercising their duties to their electorate if they get elected to one of the nations’ eight parliaments. Nor does it say anything about carrying out the wishes of those who may have elected them. No, all ALP parliamentarians owe their first allegiance to “the party”, or more specifically, to the ALP Caucus. The wishes and opinions of those who elected them have absolutely no status in Laborland. 

When elected to parliament all ALP parliamentarians are subject to section 5 (d) of the ALP Constitution. It reads: 

The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party shall have authority in properly    constituted Caucus meetings to make decisions directed towards establishing the collective attitude of the Parliamentary Party to any question or matter in the Federal Parliament, subject to: at all times taking such action which may be possible to implement the Party’s Platform and Conference decisions; on questions or matters which are not subject to National Platform or Conferenceor Executive decisions, the majority decision of Caucus being binding upon all members in the parliament.

Hanging over the heads of all ALP Members of Parliament is the threat of expulsion from the party and the possibility of never being selected again as an ALP candidate in future elections. A parting gift to those who fail to toe the party-line is usually the bestowing of the title “Labor Rat”. These three threats are a terrific incentive to remain mute. Bite your tongue. Say nothing! 

The solidarity pledge, and the implied threats if the pledge is broken, succeeds in stopping ALP parliamentarians having a view of their own, that is contrary to Caucus, and expressing that view in parliament. It is in effect, a curtailment of exercising their parliamentary right to speak and vote according to their own belief or conscience and indeed expressing the views of their electorate. 

No doubt fine legal minds, over the years, have pondered upon the question of whether solidarity pledges are in fact legal, or whether the implications — and indeed past threats and expulsions — constitute an interference in a member of parliament being able to freely exercise their constitutional obligations — to vote for what they think is best for their electorate and the nation. 

In 2009, author and historian, Peter Henning expressed the following view: 

“Caucus solidarity”, “discipline”, “toeing the party line” – is arguably the single most important characteristic of the Australian party system, because it defines the whole nature of political discussion and debate in society, in the nation, in the states and in local communities. 

Under the caucus system, “representative democracy” is a farce and a lie.   

The solidarity pledge of the ALP can be traced back to the early 1890’s when G. Black tried to tie down the votes of ALP parliamentarians by endeavouring to get ALP party members to agree: 

That, in order to secure the solidarity of the Labour [sic] Party, only those will be allowed to assist at private deliberations who are pledged to vote in the House as a majority of the Party sitting in Caucus has determined. 

In 1891 only 19 of the 27 Labor MPs signed the pledge. In 1893 the ALP conference passed a resolution to enforce the pledge, but this was strongly challenged by Joseph Cook, the parliamentary leader and his MPs. Their objecting manifesto stated, in part: 

That the pledge was both absurd and impracticable and calculated to thwart the desires of the workers …

That the pledge destroyed the representative character of a member and abrogated the electoral privileges of a constituency. 

Well, you can’t get much clearer than that! 

Between 1950 and 2004, of the 14,243 divisions called in both houses of the Australian Federal Parliament (counting the way an MP voted), 493 divisions involved members crossing the floor. Of those members, 63% were from the Liberal Party; 26% were from the National/Country Party and 11% were from the ALP.

With the coalition representing 89% of floor-crossings and the ALP 11% it is easy to see the success of the solidarity pledge when it comes to toeing the caucus line. One of the most celebrated floor crossings was that of ALP Senator George Georges. He crossed and voted against the Labor Party’s attempt to introduce a national I.D. card. Senator Georges was forced to resign from the ALP for his effort in 1986. 

While “party solidarity” might be a good thing for general political effectiveness; and “cabinet solidarity” essential for stable government; caucus-controlled political fiefdoms that now dominate in 21st century Australia destroy the very corner-stone of representative democracy in this country.

In March 2009, Dr Peter McMahon of Murdoch University stated: “Politics is now replete with careerists who lack the education, training, and political character to deal with issues of substance.” If you add to this the strangulation of views and opinions of people who claim to represent the views and wishes of their electorate, the parliament does become a complete farce.

If there is just one view allowed to be presented in both houses of parliament — the Caucus approved view — then you only need one parliamentarian to present that view. The rest is just purely theatre… a tragedy at that. 

So this leads to a message to ALP parliamentarians: 

Cross the floor — kill the tax — become a Local Hero!  


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