For many years hunting and shooting organisations in Australia (including the Australian Deer Association) have recommended that their members vote for supportive candidates, irrespective of party – ‘good people in bad parties’ – we have now reached the conclusion that this approach is flawed.
The Australian parliamentary party system is one of the most disciplined in the free world. In comparable democracies like New Zealand and the United Kingdom, politicians vote outside of party lines regularly. One of the most famous examples occurred in 2004 when 72 Labour MPs ‘crossed the floor’ in the British House of Commons and another 19 Labour MPs abstained from voting on Labour’s legislation allowing universities to increase tuition fees.
As for the United States, it does not have a party system as Australians understand as we saw recently when the administration ran out of money to pay the public service even though there was a Republican President and Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In Australia, it is exceptionally rare for even one MP to cast a vote at odds with their party, either on the floor of parliament or even within parliamentary committees. The discipline is all but absolute and the rare occurrences of MPs ‘crossing the floor’ are almost always symbolic (that is, they do not affect the outcome of the vote).
This discipline is even tighter when one examines how the major parties operate. Before governments introduce legislation into the parliament or make major policy decisions (with the exception of some decisions related to security issues), they are approved by caucus. Oppositions have a similar process before deciding their response to legislation or major announcements.
In both cases a significant number of votes are locked in before a vote even takes place. This is because of the notion of cabinet solidarity as it has been applied since the days of the Whitlam Government in the 1970s. This means that ministers support the decisions of cabinet in party meetings. At a federal level this includes ministers who are not cabinet ministers. If you add parliamentary secretaries (now called assistant ministers) leaders have more than 25 per cent of the votes locked down before a discussion even begins.
Consequently, if individual areas or sectional interests such as ours want our priorities to be reflected in legislation we need the support of entire parties, not just individual members.
That is not to say that the politicians who support us in the various parties do not advocate strongly for us behind closed doors, they certainly do, however without the majority support of their colleagues they are prevented from showing that support on the floor of parliament.
The Australian Deer Association is deeply interested in policy around land use, wildlife management and, of course, hunting and shooting.
We pride ourselves on basing our positions on facts, data and evidence; if we remain true to that principle there can be no logic in supporting any party that does not do the same when it comes to our interests. We work hard to present our issues to decisions makers in a clear and concise manner, but, we leave politics to the politicians. A recently published review of the 2016 federal election (Double Dissolution, ANU Press) noted the following about the activities of interest groups like ours around elections:
“We conclude that efforts by interest groups to shape Australian elections are hard to assess, but in reality they are likely to be very slim. Direct attempts to change outcomes in specific seats seem limited to those well- resourced groups who can in effect replicate a party’s organisation on the ground. For most groups, the strategy most available—and therefore utilised—is to generate credible policy ‘asks’ (or requests), and to have parties engage with them. We speculate that groups most often engage in campaigns to address organisational maintenance issues, such as convincing members they are active on the issues that matter to them.
At forthcoming elections, we will continue to provide advice to our members and to the broader hunting and shooting community on the policies of the various parties, and, as importantly, of the likelihood of them being implemented. We will also continue to support parties which support our interests by manning polling booths and actively promoting their support – we won’t however be supporting “good people in bad parties”.