Opinion Electoral avalanche may force Newman to focus on enemy within

Could the sheer size of Campbell Newman's victory in the Queensland election sow the seeds of a British-style Westminster revolt, asks Fergal Davis.

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Fergal Davis

OPINION: Could the sheer size of Campbell Newman's victory in the Queensland election sow the seeds of a British-style Westminster revolt? It might seem a ridiculous proposition now, with the Liberal National Party dominating the Parliament and the political agenda, but such large majorities can have unforeseen consequences.

 

The stunning win led to an outbreak of magnanimity from Newman, who says he wants to ensure Labor receives adequate support to be an effective opposition. When Labor received a similar drubbing in NSW last year, at least the party could look to the upper house for talent. But Queensland did away with its upper house in 1922. So Queensland Labor simply doesn't have the numbers to hold Newman's executive to account.

 

Luckily, the absence of a formal opposition doesn't necessarily mean the absence of all opposition. The media will play an important role but much will also depend on another unlikely source of dissent - MPs from within the LNP government itself.

 

In their 2005 analysis of Australian politics, David Farrell and Ian McAllister noted that the complexity and compulsory elements of the electoral system have resulted in high levels of party discipline and cohesion. Opposition within political parties here usually takes the form of factionalism (particularly in the ALP). Dissent on the floor of Parliament is far less common.

 

But the size of the LNP victory could put this established party discipline to the test. It might sound counter-intuitive but internal dissent is not without precedent, even in popular governments.

 

We only have to look to Britain. A political scientist at Nottingham University, Philip Cowley, has studied the factors that contribute to Westminster revolts. In particular, Cowley analysed parliamentary dissent under the British Labour governments from 1997 to 2010.

 

Within Labour there was a hard core of dissenters who made their names by opposing their own party. While there is no obvious equivalent in Newman's LNP, at least for now, Cowley pointed to another crucial factor in dissent - cabinet reshuffles.

 

In every parliamentary cycle, he said, there is a tipping point, or key moment, when the number of MPs who have either been sacked from cabinet or consistently overlooked reaches critical mass. This growing pool of people realises they don't cut it under the current leadership and can no longer be bought off.

 

Both groups - the sacked and the overlooked - become liberated from the constraints of the party leadership. They feel free to oppose the government without concern for their political future. Former ministers speak authoritatively. They can impress and influence the media, the electorate and junior colleagues. The more of these people outside the tent, the more open the possibility of dissent, the more precarious the position of the leader.

 

The LNP is on track to win a record 78 seats in the 89-seat Parliament. Newman has announced he will appoint 19 ministers and 11 assistant ministers. That leaves more than 40 potentially ambitious (and already overlooked) backbenchers to be managed. No Australian leader (in a unicameral system) has ever had to manage so many egos.

The existence of a large parliamentary majority also removes one of the key barriers to revolt. When Parliament is on a knife-edge, every vote counts. Voting against the government is akin to a turkey voting for Christmas. But when your party has an unthinkably large majority, backbenchers can afford to take a stand, get noticed by the media for their principled speeches and develop a reputation.

 

This is effectively what happened in Britain under Tony Blair. One year after coming to office, his Labour government faced significant revolts on the issue of student tuition fees. By 2008, they were losing key votes on extending pre-trial detention for terrorism suspects. As Blair lost his grip, his backbenchers grew ever bolder.

Might Campbell Newman, similarly, have only a year or so of unfettered authority? Queensland's new Premier should heed the British experience. Large majorities might look attractive at first but they also bring their own headaches.

 

Australian politics has generally been characterised by strong party discipline - on the floor of Parliament, at least - but Newman and his government should not take such discipline for granted. 

 

Fergal Davis is a senior lecturer in UNSW's Faculty of Law and a member of the ARC Laureate Fellowship: Anti-Terror Laws and the Democratic Challenge project in the Gilbert+Tobin Centre of Public Law.

 

This opinion piece first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald