Oz Idol politics

Over at Lava Rodeo, tigtog posts about an advocacy site put together by American-inspired and left-leaning lobby group GetUp! and an assortment of greenie groups “advocating placing your vote according to candidates records on climate change.”

Tigtog laments the lack of any analysis of the records of individual Senate candidates, but the real problem with this concept is that it’s almost completely meaningless in an Australian political context. American lobby groups traditionally analyse and publicise politicans’ voting records on individual issues, in part because their individual records may actually differ from each other and therefore tell us something useful about a politician’s beliefs and performance on issues that particular groups of voters care about. But that’s because the American political culture (and for that matter that of the UK) is much less rigid and authoritarian than Australia’s.

In Australia, politicians just about always vote the party line, so there’s no point whatever in analysing their individual voting patterns on legislation. It would be like running a focus group to find out the opinions of soldier ants. In the ALP, voting against a party position is grounds for expulsion, so it never occurs. The Coalition’s internal authoritarianism is marginally less overt, so that hardy rebels like Barnaby Joyce or Petro Georgiou don’t actually get expelled from their respective parties, but their future political career opportunities are heavily circumscribed and few of their colleagues are tempted to emulate them.

Even in the minor parties like Greens and Australian Democrats, and despite the fact that the Democrats at least enshrine a right to independence in their party rules, my subjective impression is that divergence from a party room decision or formal party policy position is very rare (I’d be interested in Andrew Bartlett’s reflections on this if he happens past). In fact, the only time when there actually was some real policy divergence between Democrats politicians was while Meg Lees was still there, and that resulted in the party being portrayed as a disunited rabble and setting itself on a downward and possibly terminal electoral spiral.

There appears to be an unholy (and in my view immature) consensus between the Australian media and voting public that public unity on the part of political party representatives is a more important value that honestly, thoroughly and publicly debating and deciding issues and policies to foster a finer-grained democratic accountability. Politics in Australia is like footie without the physical violence: the other team is the enemy and disunity is death. It’s a convenient consensus, because it means that neither voters nor political journos need to think too deeply about policies or issues, but it has major downsides.

I wonder how one would go about attempting to change this endemic feature of Australia’s political culture over time (assuming you think it would be desirable)? Could an initiative like that of GetUp! potentially play a part? In other words, although asking questions about politicians’ voting records is meaningless in one sense, maybe just highlighting that fact is part of the process of achieving change. On the other hand, maybe rigid internal party discipline is an unavoidable consequence of compulsory voting; maybe marketing a political party to disengaged, disinterested voters necessarily involves behaving like a footie team and avoiding confronting the disconnected bogan masses with choices any more complex than those they face when voting for a contestant on Australian Idol.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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21 Responses to Oz Idol politics

  1. Patrick says:

    On the other hand, maybe rigid internal party discipline is an unavoidable consequence of compulsory voting

    I almost agree, except that I think that ‘rigid internal party discipline‘ is actually our reconciliation between prime ministership/presidentialism and parliamentary government.

    I really can’t think of any very effective way to change this, although I suspect that abolishing party voting in the Senate might help (although it might more significantly reduce the number of valid Senate votes).

  2. Peter Ferguson says:

    I have always thought it ridiculous that a polition must always toe the line but anyone who doesn’t is crucified by the media as well as the party. Is it possible US polititions are moe vulnerable to lobbyists & thus corruption simple because they are free to disagree with policy?

  3. Oz says:

    Wouldn’t it be more that rigid internal party discipline is because it is a natural reaction to the binding caucus in the ALP? Because the ALP pretty much always votes as a bloc, everyone else has to be heavily disciplined as well otherwise they’d lose regularly.

    Also remember in the US, campaigns are essentially run by individuals which differs from both the UK and Australia where it’s usually parties.

  4. Oz says:

    Also on a somewhat related topic the Evatt Foundation is having a forum in early October about lobbying and democracy with Prof John Keane.

  5. Yes, a sad state of affairs. No easy answers from me I’m afraid.

    One straw in the wind is that when the punditocracy moves to execrate the Howard Government with even more gusto than they trashed the Fraser Govt after it’s fall, one strand of analysis will be that Howard had too much power. He appoints everyone so everyone is beholden to him.

    The ALP has not had a happy record with its looser arrangements as far as getting caucus approval for Ministerial decisions and having an absurdly large ministry operating as a cabinet.

    But most of those things were sorted in a reasonable fashion when Hawke learned the lessons of the Whitlam Govt and dealt with them. The ALP approach of caucus election to the ministry with Prime Ministerial allocation of appointments does have more defused power – which is not a bad thing.

    Even Caucus having the final say on decisions is not necessarily a bad thing, but the media render it unworkable as they depict a party in chaos when it’s just working out its own processes in public.

    Funny and sad how our image of leadership is about not tolerating dissent.

    Creepy really.

  6. Mungo Amanda says:

    There are very good historical reasons for the Labor policy of caucus solidarity and enforced disciplie, they would never have been the first Labor govt in the world without it. Its one of the things that they had against the financial/establishment resources of the other side. Disunity was death.

  7. I meant to add that the analysis I just offered of the Lib PM having too much power was offered to me by an ex-Liberal MP

  8. Alexm says:

    The party solidarity is mainly brought about by the requirement for the government to have the confidence of the lower house plus the use of single member electorates. This means that minority opinions tend not to be well represented in parliamentary proceedings (although MPs may engage in these debates within their parties). Where you have a party list form of voting (eg Italy, Israel, Australian Senate), smaller parties can get representation in parliament and bargain to be members of the ruling coalition or in relation to particular issues. On the other hand, where the Executive and Legislature are separate (eg USA) there can be debate without instability in the Executive. Effectively our system forces debate to be internal within the parties (hence party factions) rather than in in the public arena. In short, the reason is structural rather than due to some defect in the moral character of the participants.

  9. Mungo,

    what was a sensible strategy over 100 years ago isn’t necessarily a sensible strategy today.

  10. Paul Frijters says:

    nicely balanced post, Ken. The problem with open debate is always that, in the eyes of the beholders, it diminishes from the appearance of absolute control by a leader because a dissenting opinion IS an act of independence: it is showing that the dissenter values at least something else than the wish to please his hierarchy, if only his own right to express his conscience. This independence DOES diminish the ability of government to force through decisions, for good or for bad. Ken (and I) might like to see individual politicians openly having other values than their group allegiance but whenever group solidarity is needed dissenters have to quietened. Hence the question becomes what it is about the Australian system that makes voters so keen on seeing obedience. Perhaps it is the compulsory voting system in combination with an electorate that yearns for strong and decisive leadership. Is it in our nature to want to be treated like small children in need of firm guidance and soothing myths, or is this particular to this culture this day? I dont know.
    I agree with the spirit of Ken’s plea though. I wonder how many labour MPs and Liberal MPs would have the guts to say that 2+2 equals 4 if their party leaders wanted them to say it was 5.
    The solution, apart from a better education of the public? I do think a PR system would help because it diminishes the returns to large blocks.

  11. pablo says:

    There is the capacity for groups or organisations to canvas politicians prior to an election on an aspect where the party has not adopted a policy position. An example would be the Women’s Electoral Lobby in the past, but they are few and far between. It needs to be skillfully done by outfits of some standing and it is ultimately a matter of shaming those prospective candidates into participating.
    And the subject has to be serious and right up there in the public perspective.
    On something as serious as climate change you could test a candidate’s grip on the issue outside of bland party policy. For example would they accept a 3 degree average temperature rise within their kids lifetime.
    It would be interesting to devise an internet based scheme but what organisation has the clout, the neutrality and the capacity to publicise responses.

  12. Amanda says:

    Depends on what you mean by “sensible.” Its eminently sensible from many points of view, including those who actually want someone decent in a position to do something real. Poltiical gridlock and further indulging the self-aggrandising impulses of MPs might not be all the democractic wonderland its cracked up to be either.

  13. Caroline says:

    There appears to be an unholy (and in my view immature) consensus between the Australian media and voting public that public unity on the part of political party representatives is a more important value that honestly, thoroughly and publicly debating and deciding issues and policies to foster a finer-grained democratic accountability.

    Thank you. I agree, although I’m not sure about the “finer-grained” bit. I think we are immature. Not something necessarily to feel badly about, as its actually a fact. I think a larger population would help. I think a bit of good leadership would help.

    Our current batch of Ministers have made me realise how immature we are in the eyes of the world–and then again, how immature the world behaves. Nelson, Downer, Andrews have all made international fools of themselves as being not only disingenuous, but pretty bloody parochial. It is cringe-worthy. There are so many finer, smarter, brighter people around, (but not alas, in politics). We’ve clearly got a long way to go. Probably this ‘mob’ mentality is a transient, neolithic, survival method for smaller groups of warring members?
    Also

    Politics in Australia is like footie without the physical violence: the other team is the enemy and disunity is death.

    But not the psychological violence–plenty of that, indeed its mostly that, pretty well ALL that.

    Mark had a post up at LP sometime ago, which talked about violence in politics. It was interesting. It is just another form of war and in our case perhaps, when there’s only 50 apiece you have to hold firm and tight. No drifting off to get distracted from the main-game. Which in the case of our Government the maingame being invariably, to attack the Opposition and win the day.

    Its all so immature and so much like war. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

  14. Amanda says:

    I do agree to media leaping on any murmur of debate makes people less confident to ake part in the collective policy formulation that does happen. But I don’t follow jump from “lobby groups” to the “bogan masses” (ick).

    Consider the case of Republican Lincoln Chafee — the only Repub to vote against Iraq and more liberal on social causes than most/many Democrats but got turfed out at the last Congressional elections anyway — the great “sending a message to Bush” vote. People are motivated by different things at different times, sometimes a consideration of the individual in question and sometimes the symbolic tug of collective punishment/praise. Anecdotally, it seems to me Australians do evaluate candidates individually as much as Americans.

  15. Caroline says:

    Perhaps we do Amanda, under the microscope of trying to evaluate whether they’re ‘normal’, ‘average’ and generally all-round, ‘good blokes’. But because there are less of us, there is less chance of diversity. We are young, less sure, less tolerant and more suspicious of people who deviate from the ‘norm’. Toeing the party-line, the gang-line the mob-line is part of being normal, not standing out, being predictable, safe and not threatening the status quo.

    Its constricting, anti-life, and smacks of the small town mentality. But that’s all we seem to have achieved thus far.

  16. observa says:

    Vote the 2 houses in reverse to what we have now. That would produce proportional, 1 vote 1 value and finish marginal seat pork barrelling, as well as ubiquitous branch stacking. Without an overall majority often, the major parties would be forced to form coalition Govts (or coopt other amenable party members from time to time) and compromise their sillier/unpopular policies. Let the Senate consist of non-party, single member electorates to reflect geographic and socioeconomic units, appointing the GG (ceremonial Head of State) A ‘keep the bastards honest house’, with powerful inquisitorial/committee rights, the same term as the political Reps and the right to block supply, with an automatic double dissolution if they do. The Senate would be an ideal repository for elder statesmen and their collective wisdom, say a Bealey or a Hewson, provided they are not supported by political party funds and have resigned from any party affiliation. Political parties not to be taxpayer funded, in order to promote grass roots membership again.

  17. Patrick says:

    We are young, less sure, less tolerant and more suspicious of people who deviate from the norm. Toeing the party-line, the gang-line the mob-line is part of being normal, not standing out, being predictable, safe and not threatening the status quo.

    Hey, most of us quit the unions years ago. Also, have you tried other countries? I don’t mean spent six months in San Fransisco thinking ‘how enlightened all these gay arty types are!’ but actually lived with the ‘bogan masses’ in America or Europe or anywhere else?

    I have never, ever, ever found even anecdotal evidence that people are much different from here, anywhere else. In fact the only evidence I have ever found is people like you telling us that it must be so.

  18. I would have to agree with Oz at #3 – once the Pledge was seriously enforced within the ALP the previous disunity with the political Right became a serious liability and was quickly abandoned. In this instance, Nick, there may be an easy answer – the Pledge has to go. Either that or a more fundamental re-think, with the executive function being removed from the legislative.
    Observa (#16),
    Even making the Senate the lower house would not (IMHO) do it. The current Senate voting system is even more the creature of the parties and people who cross the floor are normally booted out at the next election at which they stand.

    The current US system is really more of a hangover from the old days of the North / South divide of the parties. The Northern Democrats used to agree more with the Southern Republicans (what few of them there used to be) and the Southern Democrats were closer to the Northern Republicans. That changed with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, so party discipline is getting stronger in the US now. If either side of politics there had managed to enforce something similar to the Pledge, Congress would have been similarly filled with drones.
    I can see the need for Cabinet solidarity, but the idea of the Pledge is something I have never agreed with. Its effect is extremely pernicious.

  19. despite the fact that the Democrats at least enshrine a right to independence in their party rules, my subjective impression is that divergence from a party room decision or formal party policy position is very rare (Id be interested in Andrew Bartletts reflections on this if he happens past). In fact, the only time when there actually was some real policy divergence between Democrats politicians was while Meg Lees was still there, and that resulted in the party being portrayed as a disunited rabble and setting itself on a downward and possibly terminal electoral spiral.

    Ken

    ‘Divergence’ within the Democrats is not overly common, but it happens every now and then without much drama. For example, there was one just a few weeks back where I was the only Democrat Senator to vote against the latest pay rise for federal politicians. There were also split votes on things like internet gambling, aspects of the Republican referendum, aspects of the nuclear waste dump laws and a few others in previous years. Usually the media/public barely notice.

    It wasn’t really the split vote on the GST which caused the portrayal as a ‘disunited rabble’, it was that it was such a hugely controversial stance to be voting in favour of it in the first place, given the perception of most of the public of what the Democrats pre-election and post-election position on the GST was. Also, the parliamentary party was never able to really resolve its differences on it. Usually people can come to different positions and just agree to disagree without too much problem, but there was so much deceit (internal as well as external) involved with various components of the GST decision and the ongoing public justifications given for it that accommodating these differences remained very difficult.

    It is true that the potential for media to portray any difference of opinion as ‘disunity’ or incoherence is a strong disincentive against regular split votes, but the reality is that it is not really an issue very often. Strong differences of opinion on issues or legislation just don’t come up that often. One mightn’t always 100% agree with a position, but teamwork means that you usually only diverge if you have strongly opposing views.

    The drawn out public brawling within the Democrats from over five years ago didn’t involve any real philosophical differences – it was just old fashioned personal enmity and revenge, and the impossibility of curtailing some extremely determined efforts by a few people to cause as much damage as possible. That sort of stuff can happen in any party, regardless of how much much personal freedom is allowed with votes on legislation in the Parliament.

    Obviously a party can’t have their members voting every which way on every second issue, but there really should be much more scope for conscience votes or crossing the floor or whatever you want to label. I think it is a terrible thing that people regularly vote in favour of things in the Parliament that they are personally deeply opposed to – it perverts democracy, dilutes personal responsibility and leads to a much greater likelihood of bad laws.

  20. Caroline says:

    Patrick, in reply, yes, I have lived in another country and regardless of such experience, I think you’ll find that there is quite a range in cultural differences across the world. We both are and are not the same as everyone else. Australians superficially, are different. Surely you’ve heard some anecdotal stories that would support this? I had a carpet tout in Istanbul pick me for an Australian because of the way I walked.

    Cultural differences stem from people’s spiritual and psychological disposition, affected as it is, by their surroundings. Culture is not something which can be achieved just by attending the opera, the art gallery or the fucking football. Culture is about the deeper concerns of the population, expressed in the main, by those who take the time to study them.

    It remains a fact that white, mainstream Australia is compared to say Iran or China, a very, very, young bunny. It should give us a sense of direction and hope, but instead, so far, we seem to have developed some sort of chip, which in recent times has transmogrified into an even more odious ‘strut’.

  21. Patrick says:

    It remains a fact that white, mainstream Australia is compared to say Iran or China, a very, very, young bunny.

    I think the real difference that makes is that we are less racist, or at least our racism is less entrenched. As attested to by the way we have integrated successive waves of distinctly (racially) different immigrants, contra eg immigrants to, er, well, any other non Anglo-Saxon country.

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