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Is floor-crossing a sign of government chaos?

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

11 December 2021

9:00 AM

‘Chaos’, said the headlines. ‘Revolts on the left and the right’, along with ministerial and backbench departures, both voluntary and involuntary, combined to give the media a field day as the Morrison government stumbled to last week’s end of the parliamentary year with Labor ahead in the polls. So how certain is the Coalition’s defeat at next May’s (?) election? During the thirteen years I spent in opposition, we were often well ahead in the polls – until each election day, the only time when it really mattered. As the Australian newspaper’s experienced national editor Dennis Shanahan warned at the weekend: ‘There is no welling sense for change, yet’ in the electorate as there was for Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Howard, Rudd and Abbott. ‘Instead there is an overwhelming wish for a return to normal’, with ‘no focus on the intricacies of politics’ until next year’s election forces voters to look at the options. Tell that to the Canberra-centric press gallery with its obsessive coverage of inconsequential ‘exclusive revelations’ and ‘scandals’ having no bearing on the major issues affecting the lives of ordinary Australians.

But what is normal? A worrying sign for Prime Minister Morrison is that an increasingly woke big business, with its big bucks, appears to be not only no fan of the government’s, its stance on social and environmental issues (last week’s vocal support for Labor’s big 2030 emissions target) and its equivocating on the government’s economic management, suggests there may be the prospect of a return to the kind of cosy relations big business had with the Hawke government. In those reformist years, ‘Big business, big unions and big government’, along with an opposition that welcomed the implementation of what was largely its own frustrated economic objectives (for which the Labor opposition had not granted it the needed support; e.g. opposing granting overseas bank licences), provided the consensus needed for the essential liberation of the economy from the excesses of regulation – even if it was at the cost of Keating’s ‘The recession we had to have’.

But Labor, the unions and big business all currently lack leaders of the calibre of Hawke, Kelty and, most important and unrecognised, Hawke’s ‘Godfather’ and his most important personal adviser, business tycoon Peter Abeles. Their close relationship (often over cards with Abeles’ close friend George Rockey) explains much of the successful progressive pro-business approach of the Hawke government (for which, by the way, Keating falsely claims all the credit). Albanese’s Labor party is not a patch on Hawke’s, the unions have no one near Kelty’s skill – and his big-business supporters lack Abeles’ intellect.

But how much of the media’s cry of ‘chaos’ really relates to the interests of ordinary Australians? Media hyperbole about government members crossing the floor is a case in point. In what passes for news (rather than comment), the SMH reported: ‘The sight of chaos in Parliament never helps a government when voters expect prime ministers to lead a unified team. Scott Morrison took a hammering this week when at least seven members of his own side turned against him in votes on the floor of Parliament, while a handful of others pushed back on his signature policy on religious freedom’. The SMH then opined that Morrison may have cause to thank these ‘rogue MPs’ like Bass’s Bridget Archer (with a narrow 553 majority) who are ‘likely to hold their seats by standing up for what they believe (do their constituents?) rather than following the Morrison line’.

When Bridget Archer created a media furore by crossing the floor to vote for a debate on a national integrity commission (without extending the usual courtesy of telling her colleagues she was about to do so), this was a continuation of a customary Tasmanian performance – and, for her, almost a family tradition. One Tasmanian senator, Reg Wright holds the record for 150 floor crossings (and nevertheless subsequently became a minister) while the family of Bridget Archer’s husband Winston Archer includes my late friend and Senate colleague, Brian Archer, who crossed the floor 14 times without getting more than a passing media mention in days when the media focus was on matters of more substance.

The media’s current floor-crossing obsession reflects the same leftish authoritarian  approach that prevails within the Labor party, whose members face expulsion for doing so. But Coalition floor-crossing is so unsurprising that, according to a recent Parliament research paper, about a quarter of all the members of parliament since 1950 have crossed the floor to vote against their side of politics without necessarily damaging their career prospects, with many future ministers and leaders having done so. This freedom of expression explains why Coalition members comprise all but the three per cent made up by floor-crossing Labor MPs.

While the level of dissent has declined in recent years, coincidental with the discipline implicitly imposed by narrow governmental majorities (where defeating a government may have serious constitutional consequences), there are nevertheless many current members who have crossed the floor, with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, with his 28 votes against his own side, not apparently damaging his career by doing so. In the parliamentary study, 12 of the 17 current (in 2020) Coalition members who crossed the floor have become ministers or parliamentary secretaries. And four Liberal MPs, (the most recent being Malcolm Turnbull) crossed the floor before becoming prime minister. Andrew Peacock became opposition leader after doing so. Seven National party leaders crossed the floor before becoming their party leader (of whom five became deputy prime minister), with  Warren Truss crossing twice as leader of the Nationals. But none of this diminishes the media’s desperate desire to make floor-crossing a sign of Liberal disarray rather than of democratic freedom of expression.

Unlike my senatorial cousin Peter Baume, I never crossed the floor in my 20 years in federal Parliament, but did (like Tony Abbott) absent myself from a couple of divisions. However, I did benefit from the Nationals self-preservation action in floor-crossing against their Liberal coalition partners to support the Hawke government increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives and thereby, automatically, the Senate. Increasing from three senators of each state’s six senators to be elected at each House of Representatives election to four out of eight, enabled me to fill the extra place in the 1984 election.

But it was a disaster for good government (as Labor would also no doubt describe my election) with the even number to be elected (and the lower quota to be achieved) making it next-to-impossible for any party to achieve a Senate majority and opening the gate to single-issue and unrepresentative independents with fractional voting support holding governments to political ransom. Now that really was a floor-crossing meriting media attention.

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