Backflips and Blunnies


So what do the backflips and Party room rebellions tell us about John Howard and his Government?

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It’s now more than 10 years since he was elected and he’s set sail for an ambitious fifth term. The thing is the electoral sea doesn’t look like it used to and it’s getting stormier. Or to take the metaphor a little further this is uncharted water for a Prime Minister who rewrote the rulebook on Party discipline all those years ago.

Things have changed. The Government majority in the Senate has for forced backbenchers to seek influence from within. It used to be relatively easy. Anyone who was unhappy with particular legislation could lobby the minor Parties and the Independents they were the gatekeepers.

Meg Lees and the GST was a case in point. Peter Costello wanted 10 per cent on everything. Others were worried about a tax on staples like food. In the end, food was exempted and the Bill was passed. Compromise through the back door.

These days, the challenges come in through the front door wearing their convictions like a comfortable pair of steel-capped Blundstones boots.

When it became clear that his attempts to convince the dissidents in his own Party to abstain rather than follow their hearts across the floor had failed, Howard opted for the easy way out. He didn’t want an ugly public brawl with those who opposed his tough immigration amendments and, as he said himself, he could count. He dropped the Bill. He wasn’t going to win, and this is a man not accustomed to losing.

Then there was stem cells. Sheer weight of numbers forced a rethink on this. There are some that have begun to resent the policy weight of Catholic conservatives like Tony Abbot and the Coalition Party room has become emboldened. The Liberal Party is a broad church, we’re told time and again. And certainly on these moral issues it’s become a little broader than it once was.

There is also a strange cross-Party women’s thing happening. We saw it first with the RU486 vote. Here was a conscience vote that split the men in Parliament but pretty much united the women. Sure, some women didn’t vote for it, but an overwhelming majority did. The same is expected this time if the Parliament gets the chance to vote on the cloning of embryonic stem cells. Although the majority may not be quite as big, this vote will pass.

But let’s go back to how this happened. It was quite instructive.

Having weathered a humiliating show of defiance on immigration the Prime Minister accepted the reality that revolt was brewing on the stem cell front as well. And after repeated public assurances that he wouldn’t entertain a conscience vote he took a U-turn. Again, a conscience vote was the easy way out. What Howard didn’t want was another revolt and another brazen challenge to his authority.

As the immigration dissidents have shown, Liberal Party discipline isn’t what it has been over the past decade or so. In fact, it may just be becoming more like what it once was.

Those in the Press Gallery who’ve been around long enough have looked on knowingly, as all this has unfolded over the past few weeks. Rob Chalmers is one. Rob writes a newsletter called Inside Canberra. He’s been in the Gallery now for more than 50 years and, although well into his 70s, he’s still going strong. On Wednesday last week, the day after the PM’s stem cell backflip, Rob thrust into my hands a copy of the manifesto written by the former Liberal Party President John Valder in 1983. Fresh from the Hawke defeat ,Valder set out the essence of Liberalism for a shell-shocked Party. Absolute loyalty, of the kind we’ve seen for most of the past 10 years, was clearly not expected.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

‘The Liberal Party,’ he wrote, ‘does not require of its parliamentary candidates a pledge to always vote with the Party in Parliament. The Party’s belief in the importance of the individual conscience means that it accepts that there are occasions when a Liberal member of Parliament may vote against his colleagues without incurring sanctions from the Party (or expulsion, as in the Labor Party):’

Crossing the floor is to be regarded as an exceptional act. It is a right which should be exercised only under the following conditions:

Where the issue is one of personal conscience, and not merely a difference of policy or political judgment and

Where the member informs his parliamentary leader and his Party colleagues beforehand of his intention.

Nowhere does it mention that the Prime Minister or Party leader has to be the one to decide if and when a conscience vote will be allowed. Liberal Party members can always exercise their conscience. The thing is, until now, they all knew that if they did it without Prime Ministerial approval they could kiss their political career goodbye.

But something’s shifted. More backbenchers are now prepared to speak out and wear the risks.

All of this suggests that while John Howard has emerged the victor from the delicate power plays with Peter Costello over the past few months, he no longer enjoys the absolute authority he once did. Few see him pushing on to fight the 2010 election and, while most believe he is the best chance for victory in 2007, quite a few are also privately conceding that it’s now likely to be a lot tougher than any of them might have expected.

That said, it is hard to find any Member of Parliament from either side who really thinks John Howard will lose. Or perhaps, to put it more bluntly, that Kim Beazley will win.

Even in the current climate with interest rates on the way up, petrol rises and internal division in the Government, Labor is still struggling in the polls. The latest Newspoll puts their primary vote at just 37 per cent. Labor figures know that’s not nearly good enough. They need their primary vote to sit at 41 per cent or more from the end of the year and for it to stay that high until election day.

That latest poll surprised many. John Howard may not have the authority he once did, but as one Labor frontbencher put it, ‘Kim just hasn’t captured the imagination yet.’

If he can’t do it by Christmas, there’ll be more than a touch of panic in Labor ranks.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.