How party discipline shapes our political debate

We’ve been looking at some of the structural features in Australian politics that are impacting our polity’s ability to discuss ideas. Perhaps one of the most important, but under appreciated aspects is party discipline. It’s a factor that is regularly acknowledged, but I think we tend to take it for granted as a factor and fail to think through how it actually effects debate in our polity.

Party discipline is one of the strongest structural features that shapes Australian politics outside of the design of our political institutions. But what is it? Well, put simply, it is the practice of voting as a bloc on matters of party policy in the parliament as opposed to treating every vote that comes up as a conscience vote.

Although both the two major parties enforce party discipline, their practice of it are a little different.

Two major parties’ approaches to discipline

The ALP places a greater emphasis on party discipline by compelling all ALP members to pledge to vote along party lines at the risk of expulsion. The ALP had good historical reasons to do this, because before the pledge was adopted from 1890 onwards, the fledging party had struggled to ensure that its MPs would deliver on the party (and the trade unions’) objectives.

The pledge became the major factor to shape politics in the early Australian federation. The political parties which transferred themselves from colonial politics into national politics (which for simplicity’s sake we’ll characterise as Alfred Deakin’s protectionists and George Reid’s Free traders) had been a looser collection of individual MPs that coalesced, into and just as easily, out of, factions. The discipline with which the ALP, armed with the pledge and a developed party structure, brought to bare on Australian politics forced the parties of the right to react and adapt.

It was the 1903 election, where the parliament was split three ways between  the protectionists, Free traders and Labor that eventually inspired Deakins’ famous “three elevens’ speech, where he argued that it was impossible to play cricket (in this case, govern) with three teams of eleven rather than two.

Deakin, who held many sympathies with the ALP (and at times relied on Labor votes to govern) ultimately could not reconcile himself with the way the pledge crushed individual conscience and this set Deakin on the course of uniting with the free traders to form the first of the ‘non-labor’ parties, which the Liberal Party is a descendent.

It is for this reason that the Liberal Party makes such a big deal about their right to cross the floor, despite the reality today that the party displays high levels of party discipline. However, this was not always the case. For example, the Fraser government was subject to quite a few backbench revolts given its giant majorities after the 1975 and 1977 elections. Although many Liberals see the pledge as a major point of differentiation from Labor, and a great source of pride and virtue, in reality, crossing the floor in the LPA is often a ‘big deal’ and a threat to their pre-selections, so MPs don’t undertake the option lightly.

But its not only the historical factors that make party discipline important.

Today, the exercise of party discipline still has an important influence on our political culture. And the reason is simple: the Australian parliament is relatively small but the jobs (and salaries) available as a proportion of the total number of MPs are high.

Let’s do the math

We only have 150 members and 76 senators  for a total of 226 politicians at the federal level. Then consider that in the House, the numbers might be split roughly 50-50 between Labor and the Coalition or at the moment given the government’s large majority little more lopsided at 60-40. In the Senate, the situation is even more complicated: almost a third of the Senate sits on the cross benches leaving the two major parties with roughly a third each. This means that party rooms aren’t actually that big.

The LPA’s party room is currently 123 and the ALP’s is 80.

Now consider the ministry, which currently sits at 30 (19 Cabinet, 11 outer Ministry) and its the same for the Shadow Ministry. These positions are entitled to higher salaries than the base pay for a backbencher.  On top of this, the government has 12 parliamentary secretaries (paid at a higher rate) and the Opposition has 15. Moreover, there are also committee chairmanships and deputy committee chairmanships which are also a pathway to seniority and promotion into the ministry.

What does this all mean?

Well, it means that 87 out of 226 members or (38 per cent) of  all parliamentarians have some kind of position (and often a salary too) above that of a simple backbencher. In reality the number is higher if we just look at the numbers for the two parties of government 87 out of  203 (43 per cent).

For the Coalition specifically, its 42 out of 123 (34 per cent) and for the ALP its 45 out of 80 (56.25 per cent). But importantly, these figures do not include chairmanships of parliamentary committees, which are regularly the first step on the way to a ministerial career.

In a nutshell, its not that hard to become a minister in Australia. Consider the UK, which has 650 members in the House of Commons and where governments can have large backbenchs of over 150 members. Consider Canada, which also has a larger parliament, of 308 members (which will rise to 338 at this year’s election). If we were to take our number of 87 executive members and (glibly) applied it to the House of commons alone that would mean that only 13 per cent of the 650 sitting Commons members would be in the executive or shadow executive. This doesn’t even consider the other factors that might count against someone become a minister, such as holding a marginal seat.

After looking at the numbers, we can see that its not that hard to get into the ministry in Australia. Therefore, the incentives for MPs to keep their opinions to themselves, tow the party line and be a team player are high. If you stay disciplined, one day you’ll get to be the one making decisions. To be clear, I don’t think politicians tow the party line because they’ll get paid more — many MPs could earn a lot more if they worked outside of parliament. Arguably, this trend is even stronger in smaller parties, because the numbers are so small, everyone has a job.

Should we then be at all surprised then that our politicians are as timid as they are to think outside the box or speak out against their party? If they behave and show even modest talent, the might very well be promoted.

*** Thanks to Peter Phelps MLC for his comments. I’ve edited the post in line with the discussion below. ***

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3 Responses to How party discipline shapes our political debate

  1. Peter Phelps MLC says:

    Your numbers are right, but the motivation you ascribe us wrong. MPs don’t stay quiet for the money, but for the prospect of advancement to a point (the Ministry) where you can give effect to policy positions you want to pursue.

    Basically the thinking is this: I will keep my mouth shut and toe the party line because I can do nothing of practical effect as a backbencher. But if I show I am loyal and responsible I will one day get to a Ministry where I can make the big changes that I have always wanted to do.

    • Thanks for your comment. Of course, I don’t think MPs go into politics for the money, many of them could earn a lot more outside of parliament. I think the motivation is as you describe and I’ll make an amendment to the post to reflect that.

  2. Pingback: Pollies, ideas and dissent | Political Animals

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