The current outbreak of floor-crossing conscience among federal Coalition backbenchers is an interesting phenomenon, not only leading to the demise of Howard’s odious Indon-appeasing beefed-up Pacific Solution legislation but also to a graceful backflip on allowing a conscience vote on stem cell research.
Indeed The Age’s Michelle Grattan suggests that assorted other malcontents have pet legislative projects on which they might just cause trouble. Personally I don’t think it’s very likely that Ironbar Tuckey, Warren Entsch or Danna Vale would cross the floor, and even if they did it wouldn’t make any difference given that they’re members of the Reps where the government enjoys a large majority. Nevertheless Howard might conceivably try to appease them to avoid an appearance of disunity in a pre-election year if they manage to gain a bit of media purchase for their respective hobby horses (even more union-bashing in Ironbar’s case, gay rights for Entsch, and David Hicks for Danna Vale).
There seems to be something happening in the parliamentary zeitgeist. What could it be? For a start, Liberal “moderates” (once upon a time known as “wets”) and Costello supporters now know that any hopes they might have entertained of a ministry or parliamentary secretary position are out the window or at least indefinitely on hold.
Just as importantly, the Class of 1996 will all have qualified for their very generous parliamentary superannuation by next year’s election. An inflation-indexed pension for life (surviving to one’s spouse) amounting to at least 55% of a backbencher’s base salary (currently $118,950) is no laughing matter. Federal pollies (except those elected in 2004, whose benefits will be much less generous due to the peanut gallery-pleasing antics of that bastard Latham) are entitled as of right to the full whack of superannuation once they have served 4 full terms or 12 years. Indeed qualification is achieved in 8 years or 3 terms if a member loses office “involuntarily”, which includes through loss of party endorsement. Accordingly, threats of disendorsement directed to “rats in the ranks” don’t cut much ice for Members who can harbour no realistic short-medium term aspirations to higher office anyway (i.e. moderates and Costello supporters like Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird or George Brandeis). They have little or nothing to lose, although Baird was only elected for the first time in 2000 and so has longer to wait for his super payout even on involuntary retirement.
Mind you, although the “involuntary” retirement super qualification provision theoretically brings ambition-deprived members of the Class of 1998 within the ambit of those with nothing to lose super-wise, the only one of them who seems even marginally likely ever to cross the floor is the recent and completely loopy Costello convert Alby Schultz. However Schultz is somewhere to the right of Tim Blair and barking mad to boot, so he’s unlikely to cross the floor to support any legislation or amendment that centrists or lefties would regard as worthwhile.
The fortuitous combination of the fading of the Costello star and the imminent superannuation qualification of lots of ambition-shorn Coalition backbenchers will make for ongoing interesting times over the next year. Neither prospects of preferment nor the lure of the loot now place boundaries on their political consciences, so why not go out in a blaze of glory, principle seemingly triumphant over expedient subservience to party discipline?