Politics Procedure

Despite leadership spills, party discipline in Australia is still strong

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about an attempted leadership spill in Australia, as former Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd challenged, unsuccessfully, the leadership of Julia Gillard, who herself had challenged – successfully – Rudd’s leadership prior to the 2010 general election. Of course, if you follow the news at all, you will know that Kevin Rudd again challenged Ms. Gillard’s leadership at the end of June, this time successfully, and is now, again, both leader of the party and Prime Minister.

Such leadership changes are possible in Australia because it is the party caucuses which choose their leaders, as I explained in that 2012 post. Because the caucus can withdraw its support from the leader and cause a leadership change, this, in theory, makes the party leadership more responsive to its backbenchers. This contrasts quite sharply with how party leaders are selected in Canada, by party members at large. Because a Canadian party leader doesn’t owe his or her position solely to their caucus, they can exert more control over the caucus, justifying their actions by claiming a wider mandate.

Some in Canada admire the Australian method of choosing party leaders, seeing it as a means of “fixing our parliamentary problem“. That Macleans editorial posits that:

Putting leadership decisions in the hands of an elected caucus inevitably strengthens the position of backbenchers by giving them real clout. This is significant for Canada, since the biggest problem with our current system is the dramatic centralization of political power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Individual MPs have become entirely emasculated.

(…)

Putting leadership-review abilities in the hands of backbenchers would dramatically alter the Canadian power dynamic. Backbench priorities would suddenly have real weight. And rather than the PM simply skipping town, it would have been possible under the Australian system for MPs to demand a more fulsome and immediate answer from their leader. The Prime Minister would suddenly be accountable to his caucus. As things stand now, power goes only one way: from the PMO down.

While this argument might have some merit, it ignores a key point. In Canada, no one can be a candidate for a political party unless the leader of that party signs off on that person’s nomination papers. Every single MP in the House of Commons owes their place there in large part because their party leader signed their nomination papers. If they run afoul of the party leadership during the course of the parliament, odds are that their nomination papers won’t be resigned. That fact inspires its own warped loyalty. Yes, a prospective new party leader could promise any caucus members who supported him or her in a leadership spill that they would be kept on as the party’s candidate in the next election, but this wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed. This potential uncertainty might make if more difficult for backbench MPs to decide to back a leadership challenger, or even push for a change in leadership.

There is another assumption, implied in the Macleans piece, that this power Australian caucus members have vis-à-vis their party leader must make for more independent, less whipped MPs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Australian party discipline is as strong in every other way as it is here in Canada. From a 2010 article from the Sydney Morning Herald (sadly no longer online but I have scanned a copy of it):

Party discipline in Australia is much tighter. The Labor Party, after splitting in its early years, introduced the cast-iron discipline that it still enforces. You must vote as caucus directs. Labor members delight in praising dissenters on the Liberal side, (…), but there are never any Labor dissenters.

Faced with a party of this sort, the Liberals too have to run a tight ship. There are dissenters but they are unusual and newsworthy. There are spoken of as “crossing the floor”. In Britain, that term is used not for voting with the other side – which is common enough – but for joining the other side.

(…)

Grown-up people are handed prepared questions to put to ministers in question time so that ministers can say how good they are and how appalling the opposition is. Even in the Australian Parliament, question time used to be an occasion when backbenchers asked real questions of their own ministers. Now it’s a party slanging match, a total disgrace.

So while Australian backbenchers can initiate a change in their party leadership, that’s pretty much the only freedom they have. The Labor Party, for one, makes its members sign a pledge that they won’t vote against the party line:

The ALP has a formal pledge which binds all Labor members to support the Party Platform and accept the collective decisions of the Caucus. The colonial labour parties first adopted the pledge in the 1890s.

(…)

The rules of the Australian Labor Party make it clear that the Federal Parliamentary Party has the authority in properly constituted Caucus meetings to establish the collective attitude of the Parliamentary Party to any question or matter in the federal parliament, subject to:

no attitude being expressed which is contrary to the provisions of the Party Platform or any other decision of  National Conference or National Executive

While the Liberal and National parties don’t have a similar pledge, they both expect that their members will support party policy. Voting against party policy is to be regarded as an exceptional act.

Would empowering party caucuses with leadership-review abilities really fix Canada’s parliamentary problem? I doubt it. It isn’t one single problem plaguing our parliamentary system. Perhaps it might improve some things somewhat, but the reality is that our parliamentary problems are many and run much deeper. And as politics in Australia shows us, party discipline is still pretty iron-clad – right down to controlling how MPs vote and what they get to ask in the House. Spilling a leader doesn’t change that reality.

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