A parliamentary fairy tale

Once upon a time, long ago, the people had parliaments but not political parties. Certainly, MPs joined factions and factions formed fractional alliances, but the factions and alliances were fluid; they splintered and reformed around the issues and challenges of the day. Back then, MPs aligned and realigned as parliament worked through the items on its agenda, according to each MP’s assessment of each issue. All unremarked in their electorates. Since each electorate has its own identity, differs from all the others, so why would its MP align permanently with some other group of MPs, take directions from a party? The future is uncertain, best responses unknown, so best stay free to choose.

Back then, MPs were free to question and accuse, propose and withdraw, agree and object, praise and sanction – as they judged right, free from outside interference. These MPs made parliament a fortress of free speech, secured by law. Outsiders could not MPs sue for defamation, nor prosecute MPs for statements that would be illegal outside. Witnesses called before a parliamentary committee had the same protections. These protections, still part of our black-letter law, were surely enough.

It never occurred to MPs that they might need protection from inside interference, orchestrated from within the fortress to monopolise committee chairs and committee reports, to end debates before everybody is heard, legislate by exhaustion, waste parliament’s time with pre-arranged questions and pre-arranged answers, refuse to hold ministers to account, bind themselves to a party, vote exclusively as their party directs. They never imagined that a party would direct its MPs, not only to fast-track its own legislative initiatives, but also to hobble the parliamentary work of other MPs.

Back then, though numbers could be mustered to do such things, they respected parliament’s conventions, the unwritten rules that prohibited such things.

Not writing the rules down was a mistake. The Australian constitution could have protected MPs, not only from outside interference, but also from its twin inside, ever shielding MPs from their fellows. The warning signs were there. Party politics and party governments were the future. MPs queued to exchange their ancient charter of parliamentary liberties for an annotated copy of the party line.

The warnings were ignored.

Parliament’s innocents, its unwritten rules – just fresh victims for party machines.

All that could be feared came to pass, the House undone from within.



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