Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Rebels with a cause cross the PM

Anyone reading the media lately could be forgiven for thinking that crossing the floor of parliament was a truly apocalyptic event as fraught as crossing the Antarctic plateau and as irrevocable as crossing the Rubicon.

But it was never intended to be thus, and it has not always been thus. In those halcyon days before John Howard purged the Liberal Party of all traces of Liberalism, its members used to stroll to the other side of the chamber with insouciance and impunity.

Indeed, there were a couple of crusty (and, it must be admitted, slightly loony) senators who seemed to spend more divisions sitting with the opposition than with their colleagues, and far from being execrated and ostracised they were treated as lovable old eccentrics, living evidence of the tolerance and inclusiveness of the broad Liberal church.

Others were more selective in their shows of independence, but took pride in the occasions when they exercised it and a great many did. Before he traded in his conscience for a ministry even our baneful Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock was known to cross the floor on a matter of principle.

In the past this freedom was held up as one of glories of the Liberal Party and one of the features that distinguished it from Labor: Liberals could vote as individuals, while Laborites were bound hand and foot by the collective.

And indeed the Labor rule was and is simple but brutal: if you vote in parliament against a caucus decision you are out no second chances, no appeal and no reprieve. In practice the party has sometimes chosen to turn a blind eye to minor rebellions, but at least members know exactly what they are risking if they take the fateful step.

Liberals, however, have no such certainty. Under the reign of terror instituted by Howard floor-crossing has become something close to a hanging offence, which is why it has practically never happened and why the revolt over the asylum seeker legislation has generated such dramatic headlines.

Yet the party rules have not changed; it is all in the ambience. Far from being a privilege to be cherished and protected, the ability to register public disagreement with the majority view is now seen as a crime against the party, the government and even against the Australian people.

This deliberately overlooks the fact that the Australian people have never been asked directly whether they like the idea of men, women and children seeking refuge in Australia being deported to a foreign penal colony and locked behind razor wire until many of them go mad; but the issue is not the point. The government was elected to govern, and this demands blind loyalty from all of its members and supporters at all times.

As in so many other aspects of Howards Australia, dissent is always suspect and usually worthy of punishment. The problem is that since the party rules do not regard floor-crossing as a crime, there is no formal provision for punishment.

Howards own options are limited; his most potent weapon in the party room is the power of promotion to the ministry, but since none of the rebels expect such promotion (if they did they would hardly be rebels) that one wont work.

He could threaten to work against their preselection for next time around, but a series of nasty brawls in the branches is not what he needs going into an election year: he has already seen the consequences of such infighting in the struggle of his dear friend Pru Goward for the state seat of Epping in NSW. In addition most of the rebels are popular figures in their own electorates: Judi Moylan doubled her majority in the Western Australian seat of Pearce in the 2004 election.

In practice all Howard can do is cajole and bully, and that obviously hasnt worked. He has left the serious intimidation to his backbenchers; Moylan in particular has been subjected to an ugly campaign of threats and abuse from her fellow Western Australians, led by the gruesome twosome of Wilson Tuckey and Don Randall. That hasnt worked either, and the fact that Howard encouraged it will be seen as another personal failure.

Most floor-crossings take place when the party is in opposition and members want to support pieces of government legislation to which their party is generally opposed. To vote against your own government is more serious, and to actually vote down its legislation is very grave indeed.

But the crisis should never have arisen. When Howard received the report of his own senators that the legislation was irrevocably flawed and should be withdrawn, he decided to press ahead regardless. When the rebels warned him that they could not support it he decided he could stare them down. Even when the House of Representatives vote proved they were determined, he thought he could still bribe, bluff or bluster it through the Senate.

A less arrogant, more canny Prime Minister would have withdrawn the bills and instructed his minister, Amanda Vanstone, to continue to make further concessions if necessary; or if there was no hope of compromise, to leave the bloody thing on the backburner and cut his losses with the Indonesians, the party and the public.

As it is, Howard has the worst of all worlds. The Indonesians will feel betrayed, the rebels have been vindicated and ennobled, his authority in the party room has been badly damaged, the opposition is crowing, the media are frothing and the voters have been treated to his humiliation in full living colour and surround sound.

And serves the rodent right.

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