Crossing the floor

by John Q on June 19, 2005

The Howard government’s partial backdown on mandatory detention laws points up a striking feature of the Australian political system, the iron discipline that makes a threat by four backbenchers to cross the floor and vote against the government a major news event in itself. The government was in no danger of being defeated on a vote, with a majority of 27, and in many other countries an event like this would not be news. But in Australia it happens perhaps once in a decade.

Until recently, the US was at the other extreme. I recall a news story saying that Jimmy Carter had copped some flak for refusing to campaign for any Democrat who hadn’t voted for at least half the legislation he proposed. Apocryphal or not, it was a pretty accurate representation of a system in which the parties did little more than ensure that, most of the time, voters had a choice of two candidates, who would, when elected, vote just as they pleased.

I doubt that either alternative is healthy.

Australia’s tight party discipline can be traced back to the early days of the Labor party, when it was a third party, swinging votes between the Free Trade and Protectionist parties to extract concessions for workers and vulnerable to having individual members bought off or otherwise persuaded to support one of the big parties. Even when Labor became one of the two main parties, strict adherence to Caucus solidarity remained the rule, and was in fact strengthened. The position used to be that even a single adverse vote was sufficient cause for expulsion on the grounds of disloyalty. In some branches, this was felt to leave too much room for discretion and anyone who voted against the Caucus position was deemed to have automatically expelled themselves as a result (I’m working from memory here – I can’t find a good source)

This stringency might have made sense in the days when crossing the floor almost invariably meant siding with Labor’s conservative opponents. But in fact, as the parties converged on the issues, this ceased to be the case. Most of the handful of recent expulsions (for example, those of George Georges and George Petersen) have been for votes cast against anti-worker measures by Labor governments, though Mal Colston was on old-style rat, motivated solely by personal greed, and bought off by the offer of a job (he was subsequently convicted of corruption).

The Liberal Party used to boast that its members were free to make up their own minds, not bound by caucuses and “faceless men”. But until the latest revolt, this freedom had become a dead letter. The handful who tried to exercise it, most notably Ian McPhee, were rewarded with the loss of preselection. The idea of going against the party majority was so alien that MP Sophie Panopoulos described it as terrorism[1]

Our system of government would work a lot better with a more effective Parliament, and greater willingess on the part of MPs would help to achieve this. Australians have responded to the dangers of tightly disciplined party control by voting for minor parties and independents with the result that unfettered control of Parliament by a single party has been the exception rather than the norm, at both state and federal levels. With the Howard government achieving control of the Senate (largely through accidents of the voting system) it is to be hoped that we’ll see a reassertion of the independence claimed by members of the Liberal and National parties.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t like to see this go to the extent that prevailed in the US until recently, with no real party position. That leads to a situation where voters can’t make a judgement on the performance of the parties in Congress, but have to try and make judgements about the votes of individual candidates – at least one of normally has no track record.

The absence of any real party system promotes the worst kinds of lobbying, with interest groups owning strings of members of Congress who can be counted on to do their bidding. Of course, interest groups can bribe parties too, but it’s much more difficult. The interests of different groups are in conflict and parties can’t please them all. And as Mancur Olson pointed out, parties are encompassing coalitions, which need to take some account of the welfare of the country as a whole, since they will be punished for poor performance.

The US system is also unstable, being vulnerable to whichever party can organise a tight-knit caucus while the other side continues to act as a collection of individuals. We’ve seen this in the last decade, with the Republicans being much more effective than the Democrats until recently.

fn1. As a leading figure in the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Panopoulos might be supposed to have well thought-out views on questions like this. If so, it speaks very badly for ACM.



Tom T. 06.19.05 at 1:50 pm

It strikes me that your critiques of the US system seem to be a bit at odds with one another in places. At one point, you are critical of the US system for failing to cause a party to articulate a unified position, but later you find fault with the idea of a party coalescing around a particular tight-knit caucus, which sounds to me essentially like you’re objecting to a US party being able to offer up a (relatively) unified position.

Also, when you criticize the system as “unstable,” how are you defining stability? Has the relationship between Labor and the Conservatives in the UK, for instance, been any more stable than the relationship of the two parties in the US? I don’t mean to sound hostile; I’m not attacking your use of the term. I’m just asking you to clarify a bit.


Henry 06.19.05 at 2:08 pm

We had an interesting job-talk last year from a guy talking about US party leaders’ attempts to set election boundaries to maximize their vote share. What I found fascinating was that he just wouldn’t entertain the notion that party leaders might want to change constituencies simply to maximize the party’s overall vote – instead, it had to do with the desire to have more people elected who were closer to your ideological position, with party ID _as such_ not a relevant explanatory factor. I don’t imagine that this argument would have held any water at all in another country than the US (bit dodgy in the US too imo).


RedWolf 06.19.05 at 2:31 pm

… in the US where there is no real party position.

With DeLay in charge, a strict Republican discipline is imposed in the House with severe penalties to breaking the dictates.


John Quiggin 06.19.05 at 3:20 pm

Tom T, my reference to instability isn’t meant as in the sense of “leading to political instability”. What I mean is that it’s an arrangement which only works if both sides stick to it. As redwolf says the Republicans have moved towards a much tighter caucus vote system, and the Democrats now have little choice but to follow suit.


Peter Clay 06.19.05 at 4:02 pm

Someone commented to me recently that the work done in the UK of telling MPs how to vote is done in the US by the lobbyists funding individual senators and congressmen. I’m not sure how accurate this metaphor is, but it’s an interesting idea.


Bruce Wilder 06.19.05 at 4:23 pm

Taking the long, historical view, a peculiarity of U.S. politics before 1980, was that ideology and party were largely divorced. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. In the first two decades of the 20th century, there were progressive Republicans and progressive Democrats. The State parties, the national (Presidential) parties, and the Congressional caucuses, were, at most, loose, overlapping alliances. In the 19th century, the political parties were founded on patronage, and ideology was a distant, secondary consideration for most of their members; the State parties tended to be ideologically cohesive, but not the national parties, creating a regionalism, which cross-cut philosophical outlooks. Ideological movements, like abolition, prohibitionism, populism and progressivism, the civil rights movement, evolved outside the parties; labor unions made only distant alliances with the parties. Congress, generally, overpowered all but the most vigorous and domineering Presidents, and in Congress, seniority (and in the Senate, individual privilege) dominated party loyalty in creating power.

The advent of ideologically driven Parties, at the national level, is very recent in the U.S., occurring only after 1980. The Republicans have led in this, and have had ideologically pure control of the Senate only since 2002. The final remnant of 4 “moderate” Republicans, is less than the five vote margin. The Democrats have a somewhat larger “conservative” contingent in the Senate, but, in the House, both caucuses are pure enough that the Republican majority is also a solid conservative majority. Reagan had to cultivate conservative Democrats and Clinton could still manipulate moderate Republicans, but those days are over.

Because ideological “purity” is so new, neither members of Congress nor voters, have as much experience with it, as do polities, with longer traditions. Although the U.S. looks stable, it may be in a state of profound disequilibrium, in which parties, politicians and voters change their behavioral strategies radically, seeking some kind of, as yet unrealized, Nash equilibria.

The current dominance of conservatism, nationally, is a path-dependent result of how the parties have evolved, especially in Ohio, Florida, Texas and the western Mountain States. In Florida and Texas, conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats have long competed for conservative voters; with Democrats having lost that game, the Democratic parties in those States may veer left seeking new constituencies. In Ohio, Republican control is tenuous. In the western Mountain States, Democrats may succeed with an oddball progressive, libertarian philosophy.

My bet would be that the Republicans have secured themselves a kind of authoritarian, Imperial rule, and the Republic is dead, the Congress, a eunuch, and the Constitution has become exactly the dead letter, the most conservative Republican judicial appointees want it to be.

But, my hope, however, faint, is that the Republican imperium is built on sand, and may be swept away, in the wake of the disasters their incompetence will inevitably visit upon us.


ogmb 06.19.05 at 5:48 pm

that prevailed in the US until recently, with no real party position.

This isn’t really accurate because as a general rule (i.e. ignoring the South which has its own rules) successive D-R senators for the same state showed the expected left-right voting biases. The difference is that the constituency determines where on the political spectrum the pivot is, which leads to a situation where a Republican in a liberal state might be more liberal than a Democrat in a conservative state.


engels 06.20.05 at 4:54 pm

I’m not sure how unstable the US situation is, given that there are aspects of their political culture which keep it in place. For example, someone who consistently votes along party lines over there is derided as a ‘partisan’ – an insult we don’t really have here in the UK. Although MPs who fall into line without fail expose themselves to ridicule I don’t think the principle has anything like the importance it does in the US.


nick 06.20.05 at 4:54 pm

It’s worth making a distinction between the different standards of party discipline in the US House and Senate, which are a consequence of constitutional design. The two-year term of House members means they’re always in ‘election mode’, even with very few competitive districts, and there are a fair few newbies who readily accept the ‘guidance’ of the leadership and the lobbyists. The six-year term of Senators distances them somewhat from electoral concerns, and thus allows greater freedom — although it also allows them to establish longer-term relationships with the established interest groups of DC.

(The modern GOP Senate, however, is much closer to the House in its party discipline: moderates almost invariably vote with the leadership.)

Comments on this entry are closed.