No. 25

WHY MALCOLM TURNBULL SHOULDN’T WEAR A WIG

STONE the crows! All of a sudden the eighteenth century ideal of the MP interested in principal not power is getting a (modest) mention.

In the last Weekend AustralianI, Peter Van Onselen wrote a fair-to-favourable piece on Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to put his Melba moment behind him and stand again for Wentworth. This placed him in the great tradition of independent gentlemen, who see politics as public service. According to Van Onselen:

Once upon a time, an old-fashion approach to politics existed in this country whereby people with successful careers outside of the partisan struggle looked to spend time in parliament serving on committees and shaping the government’s approach to policy-making. That style of representative still exists in Britain and, to a lesser extent, the US. If Turnbull doesn’t re-emerge as a leadership option yet decides to stay on in parliament, contributing to policy and debate in other ways, it would be a step back in time.

Way back – to eighteenth century parliamentary politics – the ideal of independent gentlemen, chosen by their neighbours to protect the gentry and yeoman of the parish against government tax takers and regulators, was a staple of populist opinion.  In the 1750s England was full of country gentlemen whose suspicion of merchants and foreigners and the ne’er do well poor made them the Hansonites of their age. The key characteristic of the independent MP was that he was just that, he owed nobody allegiance and voted as he liked.

And this is where the MP time machine fails to function, because party discipline constrains Mr Turnbull. While the Liberals are relatively relaxed about occasional conscious votes crossing the floor over the ETS, probably used up his quota of independent action for a while.

In any case, although the crows would pay money to see Malcolm Turnbull kitted out as a regency buck, in tight breeches and periwig, the idea all MPs could be free of faction and decide every issue independently was a myth in the eighteenth century and its an absurdity now.

While the political party as we know it did not exist in the 1750s, by the time of George III blocs of MPs at Westminster voted according to their own economic interest or because they agreed to share the spoils if they got their bottoms onto the treasury benches.

The application of the assumption that disciplined voting in parliament betrays constituents got more of a go in the assemblies of eighteenth century British North America. The franchise for white blokes in the 13 colonies was effectively universal. Middling men were elected to the legislatures and by 1775 the most politically active 30 or 40 per cent of the community, across economic class, agreed the Brits had to go.

But this consensus was not enough to stop people aligning according to economic interest, preference for order over liberty, or vice versa, and running for office on organised tickets. “The violence of faction” James Madison called it in the 10th Federalist and in the 1800 election the Americans institutionalised it in a world first with a relatively mass electorate voting one political party out of office and another in.

Ever since then the political party as an institution has increased in authority –nowhere more than here. And what a win this is for us. In the US, where regional loyalties and the constant campaigning caused by two year terms for all of Congress make party loyalty weak, the idea of the MP making up his or her own mind on every issue still exists.

President Obama had to stitch together a temporary alliance to get his healthcare package through, like every other president has had to for every major piece of legislation. Woodrow Wilson created the League of Nations but he never had the numbers in the Senate to see the treaty creating it ratified.

In the UK this week, it looked like the old two party system was breaking down, with both major parties negotiating with the Liberal Democrats, the (sort of) heirs of the Whigs who fought George III’s ministers in the 1780s. But the party discipline of the Lib Dems is not as solid as Australians expect and whoever forms the next government will need to make nice to sundry regional representatives, direct descendants of the eighteenth century independents, who, assuming all politics is local, vote according to the needs of their constituents regardless of what the nation needs.

And what a mess this will make, right when the British economy needs firm government and lots of it.

The idea that party discipline is anathema to good government made some sense when legislatures met infrequently because there was not much work to do. But it hardly suits modern nations with functioning economies.

That Italy muddles along without a disciplined parliamentary system is largely responsible for the state of the place. Silliness in the Senate aside, disciplined parties govern. This is a major reason why ministries get things done.

And the fewer independent gentlepersons, motivated by their own ideas and ideals the better. Independent minded activists tend to be obsessives, less interested in governing, which inevitably involves compromises, than practising the politics of purity and opposing any idea that is not perfect.

This does not mean we should accept the way the parties expect us to vote for patronage appointments, what were called placemen in the eighteenth century. A backbench full of dills in parliament for the modest money does us no good.

But the assumption that party loyalty inevitably drives out practical people who are interested in solving practical problems in the interest of all the nation need not be right. Perhaps there are few MPs who know they will never serve in cabinet but are happy working hard on policies in parliament. They exist. And they can do it within the context of the party system and its obligation of discipline.

Anybody who has read reports of parliamentary committees knows how much independent thinking and constructive ideas can occur across party lines, without anybody having to line up with the other side.

In contrast to the modern policy wonk, voting at his party’s call but still capable of thinking for himself,  an update of the eighteenth century independent, motivated by conscience and the considerations of his constituency looks like Bob Brown.

The Senator would not look any worse in a wig than Malcolm Turnbull. But Brown would make a fuss if his wasn’t made of organic horsehair.

stephen4@hotkey.net.au

'2012