Fatima Payman breached ‘caucus solidarity’. What does this mean and why is it so significant?

The machinations of the Australian Labor Party machine are back in the spotlight this week, with Western Australian Senator Fatima Payman crossing the floor to support a Greens-backed motion calling for the Australian Senate to “recognise the State of Palestine”.

In crossing the floor, Payman breached the concept of caucus solidarity. She has been indefinitely suspended from the Labor Party caucus as a result.

So, what does this notion of caucus solidarity in the Labor Party really mean and how did it come about?

Read more: View from The Hill: Fatima Payman alleges attempts to 'intimidate' her into quitting the Senate

What is caucus solidarity?

Simply put, caucus is the group of MPs that make up a political party. This includes cabinet ministers (or “frontbenchers”) and everyone else (“backbenchers”) across both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Before the formation of the federation and the federal parliamentary Australian Labor Party, caucus solidarity had already taken root. In 1891, the first NSW Labor caucus meeting made a significant decision: MPs would pledge to abide by the majority decision and vote as a unified caucus.

The structure of the party’s organisation is formalised in the party’s constitution. In it, the federal parliamentary Labor Party has the authority in caucus meetings to make decisions on behalf of the parliamentary party, particularly on questions or matters that are not subject to national platform, conference, or executive decisions. In this specific case, the “majority decision of Caucus” must be “binding upon all members in the parliament.”

In addition, there is a formal pledge that binds all Labor MPs to support the caucus’s majority decision, even if they individually voted against the majority in a caucus meeting. This pledge has been adopted since the formation of state Labor parties before federation, but was formalised shortly within federal Labor in 1902.

This enduring notion of caucus solidarity originated from the party’s mass party trade union roots. There, the collective majority decision required solidarity to further the movement. It also explains why it is a more institutionalised element of the Labor Party compared with other parties.

It may be a feature of other parties in a less formalised way. For example, neither the Liberal Party nor the National Party has any formalised pledge that prohibits crossing the floor, though it’s generally politically frowned upon.

Theory vs practice

The same rules also say the caucus is bound to follow decisions made in the Labor Party’s National Platform. This is a compilation of theoretically binding policies the parliamentary wing of the party must follow. The National Platform is the outcome of Labor Party Conferences which take place every three years and consist of federal and state party leaders, elected state delegates and Young Labor delegates.

On the issue of Israel and Palestine, the most recent platform explicitly “calls on the Australian Government to recognise Palestine as a state and expected that this issue will be an important priority for the Australian government”.

However, the tension lies in the timing of these policies’ enactment, which is up to the discretion of the Labor parliamentary caucus and the party executive. Therefore, according to caucus conventions, Payman could not override the majority decision of the caucus, even if the caucus’ majority decision was in direct contradiction to party’s policy platform. Basically whatever caucus says, goes.

It is very rare for Labor MPs to break caucus solidarity and cross the floor (when someone votes in opposition to their own party on a particular issue by siding with an opposing motion). Research shows between February 1950 and April 2019, just 29 individual Labor members have ever crossed the floor. Comparatively, 185 Liberal politicians did so over the same period.

When it has been done by Labor MPs, it is more common for it to be done while Labor has been in opposition. It was also usually done with the full knowledge they may face expulsion from the party as a consequence.

All decisions must be debated in the caucus before a final decision is reached. After reaching a decision, all members are expected to vote for it in parliament, regardless of their own political position on the issue.

This isn’t always easy for MPs. In recent years, the example of same-sex marriage has been a particular sore point for certain MPs like current Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Back in 2004, Wong didn’t support the majority caucus opposition to the issue, but ultimately chose to follow the caucus rules.

The concept of caucus solidarity remains unchanged for more than a century, but Labor now faces greater cultural and political challenges and a more diverse electorate than in its early days.

Payman is pushing the pressure points of a mass party that, arguably, must evolve. But this notion of strict party discipline is intrinsic to the notion of a mass party like Labor. It raises questions about the future of a party with roots in the 19th century labour movement in determining crucial political and social issues in the 21st century.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Emily Foley, La Trobe University

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Emily Foley is affiliated with the National Tertiary Education Union as an elected representative on the La Trobe NTEU branch.