Features Australia

Free votes: a free reform

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

When the dispiriting kabuki theatre that is the same-sex marriage survey finally reaches its denouement next month, focus will again shift to the legislative process. If, as seems likely, the ‘people’s vote’ supports change, two things will then occur.

First, the more vociferous advocates for a ‘people’s vote’ on this one particular issue will suddenly rediscover their enthusiasm for the deliberative processes of our parliamentary democracy, warning darkly about the dangers of rushing the process.

This will be met immediately with protests from supporters of change, who will argue that anyone who does not support passage of the legislation within hours is ‘frustrating the will of the people’. This latter stance will likely garner significant support from a public which has just endured a lengthy plebiscite campaign. Most will feel the marriage issue has been determined on 15 November; further protracting it will engender hostility.

Of course, parliamentary debates should permit broad, thorough discussion, because legislating is a far more complex process than simply saying ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to a particular proposition. But that is going to be difficult to explain to people who have spent the better part of two years hearing otherwise. This is one reason why a ‘people’s vote’ on same-sex marriage was (and remains) a lousy idea.

Another is that the process establishes a precedent its advocates may eventually rue – especially if populists of the centre-Left begin conducting ‘people’s votes’ on broadly-worded questions to lend moral authority to their dubious policy prescriptions.

Of course, when the parliamentary vote on the marriage question occurs, it will take the form of a conscience (or free) vote. The PM believes this will showcase parliament ‘at its best’.

Parliamentary debates that permit free votes generally produce glowing reviews. In discussing one of the five that took place on his watch, former PM John Howard enthused ‘parliament rises to its greatest heights when we have debates of this kind. A free vote encourages people to examine their beliefs, to reflect upon their experiences, values and attitudes…’

Indeed, a process that allows parliamentarians to reflect on their experiences, values and attitudes can only be a good thing in a nation grown increasingly cynical about our parliaments and those who inhabit them.

So, why has it been more than a decade since our federal parliament has permitted such an occurrence? Why are free votes the exception, rather than the rule? Is it still realistic to expect Australians to support an arrangement which encourages them to believe they are electing representatives, when in fact they merely get delegates?

In each sitting week, almost all our parliamentarians file into their respective party rooms on a Tuesday morning for a lengthy meeting, during which they discover how they will be expected to vote on legislation.

True, this process involves a degree of internal party debate – some of which may even be passionate or interesting. Yet we voters will never know, because we are not allowed to witness it.

The ‘debates’ that we do see in parliamentary chambers generally entail the bloodless recitation of talking points, which are carefully prepared by the offices of ministers and shadow ministers and foisted on backbenchers who must then try (with varying degrees of success) to sound enthusiastic and sincere about them. At the conclusion of that process, every MP or senator belonging to a political party will then traipse to whichever side of the chamber their masters direct, and vote accordingly.

This was not how it was supposed to work. Indeed, in the two legislatures from which Australia drew its constitutional inspiration – the United Kingdom and the United States – do not impose such rigidity.

There, legislators are free to vote differently from their party colleagues on an issue. Although the occurrence may provoke occasional embarrassment, it is not seen as an existential threat to the stability of democracy or the fate of a government. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were defeated in the House of Commons numerous times – yet their governments survived.

In contrast, Australia insists that every parliamentary vote is effectively a matter of confidence – so much so that the Labor party automatically expels anyone who votes against the party line. Although the Liberal party proclaims it is ‘not a Stalinist’ party, it can do an awfully good impression of one when it comes to enforcing party discipline.

It’s generally argued that this arrangement promotes stability. Yet in the past decade, we’ve had five prime ministers, two of whom were removed by their colleagues despite holding massive parliamentary majorities.

Had they been required to more frequently earn support for legislation from their colleagues, rather than simply assuming they would prevail by virtue of strict party discipline, might their demise have been avoided?

If the Liberal party really is a ‘broad church’, then its parliamentary representatives should be free to reflect that on the floor of parliament when it comes to issues like energy, or freedom of speech. If that consistently produces discomfort for the leadership, it might just provoke appropriate policy recalibration.

Equally, if there are ALP MPs or senators appalled by union corruption, or the impact of unrealistic renewable energy targets on households and workers, why should they be forced to countenance their leader’s refusal to tackle either?

Unity is a valuable commodity – but it should never come at the expense of principled representation.

Liberal party leaders are fond of boasting that for their backbenchers, every vote is ‘in effect’ a free vote. Perhaps it’s time to change ‘in effect’ to ‘in practice’, particularly when not dealing with genuine matters of confidence.

How would Labor respond? Continue to insist that its backbenchers behave like automatons, and vote strictly in line with the leader’s diktats? That might appeal to someone who belives they can govern like a union leader, but it would hold far less appeal for free-thinking Australians.

Voters are losing faith in major parties because they feel their structures don’t accommodate voters views. Ending the absurd contrivance of rigid party discipline on every single parliamentary vote might help help remedy that – and it won’t cost taxpayers a cent.

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