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Politicians’ inability to speak freely on issues that matter leaves democracy all the poorer

It started with Labor, but both major parties now emphasise unity on most policy matters. AAP/Sam Mooy

Politicians’ inability to speak freely on issues that matter leaves democracy all the poorer

It started with Labor, but both major parties now emphasise unity on most policy matters. AAP/Sam Mooy

There is a strange paradox at the heart of modern Australian politics. We want our politicians to engage in reasoned debate, to exercise judgement, to be other than cogs in a machine.

We love it when they say things on Q&A that suggest irreverence about the party line. We treat the occasional parliamentary debate in which a “free” or “conscience” vote is allowed by the parties as superior to the usual shouting at ten paces.

Yet the same political culture that yearns for debate also demands a complete unity among its parliamentarians – and, in the context of an election campaign, among its candidates for office as well.

In the early part of the marathon 2016 election campaign, the public discomfort of a small number of Labor candidates with party policy on asylum seekers became a weapon to be used by the government against Labor. The opposition quickly recognised the possible force of such claims, and its leading members declared that there was nothing to see here: the matter had been resolved at its 2015 national conference.

But there was another possible response to this issue: that a healthy political party is never going to be of one mind over an issue as complex and difficult as refugee policy. They could have said that a party whose candidates are capable of exercising their own judgement will make better laws in government.

They might have added that tight party discipline institutionalises group-think and acts to bolster the power of factional leaders, often men with limited policy or parliamentary experience, and no vision extending beyond placing this or that backside on the parliamentary benches. The scope for creative thinking is reduced; even the smartest people in the room sound like hacks and act like sheep.

But you won’t hear any of this. Is this one of the reasons for the disappointment with politics in Australia among voters? Australia either has disciplined and unified parties in which all are members of the “team” – the very use of the term is revealing of our way of doing politics – or a rabble. The latter cannot govern; it loses elections.

We need to remind ourselves often that the system from which our own is most obviously derived, Westminster, does not operate this way. Parliamentary discipline there is much weaker. Backbenchers feel freer to speak out on issues and even to vote against their party on major issues – for instance, the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, which saw 139 Labour and 15 Tory members defy their parties.

While Australian politics is now so debased that we don’t use our parliament to conduct debates on such matters, if ever a debate were to be held about a war here such undisciplined voting could never occur.

How do we account for these differences? It has been brought into sharp relief by the unrelieved boredom of the current election campaign and the predictable partisanship of parliamentary affairs.

Like most aspects of politics, its roots are to be found deep in history. In the 1890s the Labor Party in New South Wales pioneered the tight discipline that is now such a salient feature of our politics. It was a matter of importing into parliament the culture of solidarity associated with trade unionism, but that was also true of Labour parties elsewhere – including in Britain.

What made the NSW, and then the Australian Labor Party, unusual was an increasingly elaborate and stringent set of rules designed to ensure parliamentarians would vote in parliament as a majority of caucus decided.

The heavy stress on solidarity was initially the result of the need to overcome divisions among MPs about the issue of free trade versus tariff protection. But even before that controversy had receded into history with the adoption of a policy of protection in 1908, the cult of solidarity took on a life and force of its own.

The standard penalty for not toeing the line was expulsion. Those who felt sufficiently strongly about an issue to leave the party became “rats”, a counterpart of the “scab” who crossed a union picket line.

As historian John Hirst has suggested, the result of this effort to impose such a tight and unforgiving culture was a party prone to deeply damaging splits – 1916, 1931 and 1955.

In the early years, members of other parties complained about Labor’s tight party discipline. They argued that it was contrary to Edmund Burke’s notion that a parliamentarian was a representative who must continue to exercise his judgment, not a mere delegate charged with registering voter preference. But those same parties became impressed with Labor’s achievements, and increasingly emulated its organisation and methods even while they complained about “the Labor machine”.

Today, the Coalition parties – in particular the Liberal Party – will still occasionally say they allow greater scope for dissent than Labor. Such claims should not be taken too seriously. All parties demand tight discipline, in parliament, the media and election campaigns such as our present one. Those few who dissent risk their preselections.

Hirst pointed out the demands for such a public display of unity may ironically give such MPs greater power inside the party itself; that they are able to demand a price for the public performance of conformity.

This kind of bargain might well be satisfactory to many MPs. But we should not confuse it with the more vigorous and deliberative democracy that a weaker party discipline and more open debate would bring in their wake.