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.