This post follow's up yesterday's No pre-selection or pledge & the Rudd factor. The no pre-selection or pledge is in fact the first political slogan adopted by the NSW Progressive, later Country, Party. I will come back to this in a moment. Immediately, where do political parties fit into the Australian constitution?
The short answer is that they don't in any formal sense. They are essentially an enabling device, a way of organising votes for elections to gain seats and then organise MPs on the floor of Parliament so as to gain or influence power. As such, they sit outside the formal constitution.
Are they an efficient device? It depends on what is meant by efficient. Measured by the capacity to organise groups and to gain power, they have been efficient so far as the Australian system is concerned. Have they been a good thing in marshalling and focusing opinion, in presenting alternative ideas? This one is more arguable, although I think that most Australian historians would probably answer yes.
An effective party system requires an degree of discipline, a willingness to adhere to a party line. Where party lines are more fluid as in the US or PNG, a degree of governmental paralysis can result. On the other hand, too rigid a party system totally focused on winning and power can lead to dominance of one view, a crowding out of alternatives, the atrophy of Parliament itself in the face of executive power. So where do you draw the line?
The two elements in the Progressive Party electoral slogan bear upon this question.
The Party was formed in part in opposition to what was perceived at the time as the rigidities and evils of machine politics. The no pre-selection element meant that the Party could not discriminate between candidates. Any member in good standing should be able to run in the Party name. leaving it to the electors to decide, to choose between them. This one fell away for practical reasons, although the habit of endorsing multiple candidates for a single seat would last for decades.
The second component, no pledge, reflect a similar constitutional ethos. It was a reaction to the signed pledge that, with varying wording over time, demanded of Labor candidates that if elected they would always vote in Parliament in accordance with the platform and decisions made by a vote of the Caucus. This was seen as un-Parliamentary and undemocratic. A Parliamentarian acquired a greater loyalty to constituents and Parliament. This view was not universal even in the Country Party. The more politically radical small farmer based Victorian Country Party, for example, did initially demand a pledge.
So we have a spectrum of views from loyalty to the Party as dominant on one end of the spectrum, with loyalty to Parliament and the freedom of Parliamentarians to follow their conscience at the other end. Mind you, loyalty is always a relative concept as evidenced by the size and venom of the Labor splits during the First World War, the Great Depression and then the mid Fifties.
In similar vein, at the other end of the spectrum you can see the tensions that can arise in areas such as refugee policy where members do exercise their conscience against the wishes of the Party. You can also see it in some of the more venomous attacks on Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott over their perceived disloyalty.
If we now look again at Mr Rudd's proposed changes to the election of the Labor leader, this is really an extra-constitutional matter since it is concerned with the way Labor governs itself, and that is not an constitutional issue as such, although it may have implications for the power of Parliamentarians. In Canada, for example, historian Christopher Moore has long argued that the Canadian system of electing leaders has actually emasculated the power of Parliament and of Parliamentarians by taking away the power of Parliamentarians to chose their own leader.
It seems to me that Mr Abbott's comments about the people electing the PM is quite a different matter. They don't. That is anti-constitutional, Even leaving aside the constitutional position, if the public opinion polls are any guide,the majority of the people don't want Mr Abbott as PM, they won't be electing him. Rather, if the Coalition wins, people will be voting for a Coalition Government of which Mr Abbott happens to be the head.
You can see this even more clearly, perhaps, if you look at the National Party. Clearly people aren't voting for Warren Truss as National Leader and Deputy PM, but for the local member and/or party. Mr Truss has been a loyal deputy in the Coalition, but should he become Deputy PM, nobody could really say that he had been elected by the people, just his Party colleagues. And that, to my mind, is as it should be.