Is it such a big deal for Senators, or even Members of the House, to cross the floor and vote on conscience or individual belief?
I don’t see how it can be, or indeed, should be. I realise in these days of party platform-aligned politics, the days of individual choice have long since ended. It’s accepted practice for members of a particular political persuasion to follow the ‘party line’ on votes where unity is expected, or even mandatory. If you’re a Labor member, it’s a sanctionable, as I understand it, to not follow the party line unless the party executive grant sitting members permission for a conscience vote. On the conservative side, not quite so rigid, however the expectation across the coalition parties is for unity.
Interest in the media, I suppose, to last night’s apparent bumbling in the Senate undoubtedly comes about because division in coalition ranks is something new. For twelve years, John Howard ruled the coalition parties with the mantra that disunity is death. Being the docile followers that both party’s members were at the time, no-one dared defy Howard. Barnaby Joyce being the only maverick in the ranks, and being a newb, no-one really took him seriously. These days, as leader of the Nationals in the Senate, he’s a different commodity.
But is this new event to the media really a threat to Turnbull’s leadership? From what I’ve heard, I’d have to say no. A couple of Libs and four Nats voted against the party line. Big deal. What I find interesting is Nick Minchin, after castigating the Government for dissolving the former Government’s Communications Fund into the Nation-Building Funds 2008, finished his tirade with:
“I regret to say that, on balance, it is the coalition’s position that we will not insist on these amendments.
We know very well what the government will do if we vote here tonight to insist on these amendments. The government are so obsessed with spin. They do not actually make decisions; they just do the spin. They will assert, falsely and contemptuously—through the media machine that the government run—that the coalition has blocked these infrastructure bills. The government will spend the next two months falsely asserting all over the country that we are responsible for denying infrastructure funding to every road, bridge and port in the country, simply because we have sought to improve these flawed bills of the government. We are not going to let the government get away with that. We are not prepared to let the government run that fallacious argument. It is utterly fallacious. We are not going to be cornered by the Labor Party on this issue. I guarantee to the Labor Party that the coalition will attack this Labor Party all over the country for the next two years for the contempt with which it is treating rural and regional Australia in relation to telecommunications. It is utterly disgraceful. I want to confirm tonight that a re-elected coalition government will guarantee in perpetuity $100 million each and every year to be taken from the budget and invested in rural and regional telecommunications. That is a commitment that I have authority to make on behalf of the coalition. When we are re-elected in some 18- to 20-months time, every year, in perpetuity, $100 million will be set aside in the budget to be invested in improvements in rural and regional telecommunications.
So it is with considerable sadness and regret that I confirm that we will not be insisting on what I think is a very good package of amendments which would have substantially improved this bill. What we are seeing tonight is the government treating rural and regional Australia with utter contempt, which everyone living outside metropolitan Australia should never forget—and not forget at the time of the next election.”
Faux offence, but steeped in political dread, because the Government would certainly do precisely what Minchin and others claimed they might, were the coalition parties to insist on their amendments being passed. Minchin absented himself from the chamber, along with several other Liberal Senators. They didn’t cross the floor, but didn’t vote either. Not that their support was required for the Government’s infrastructure legislation. Those that voted were all that was required. A necessary, albeit distasteful backdown in the longer term good of the coalition’s political position. The weight is now on the Government to ensure that accusations of abandonment of rural and regional Australia in the so-called national broadband network roll-out, don’t come to pass.
Of interest is the list of those who voted from the floor, and then as members of the Senate Committee process. Pages 1469 and 1470 of the Senate Journals shows who voted for what. The Greens liked some amendments and not others. What’s most interesting is names not in the chamber for counting, rather than those who were. None of the movers and shakers for either Labor or coalition, although some of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet did hang in there at midnight.
All in all, something of a rare occurrence, which excites the media, but one which was driven by political necessity, rather than revolution or serious conscience. Communication in the late evening hours could have been better from what I’ve heard also. I don’t see any threat to Turnbull from any of this.