Which takes ethical precedence: keeping a promise to remain loyal to your group or sticking to your principles?

This is a question that has faced first-term Western Australian senator, Fatima Payman, repeatedly over the past few weeks. Ultimately, she chose her principles, crossing the floor to vote for a Greens bill calling to recognise Palestinian statehood, and now she’s paying the price for breaking her pledge of caucus solidarity with the Australian Labor Party (ALP). 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, faced a different dilemma. Even though his party’s National Platform ostensibly supported Payman’s principled position, the fact remains that she broke caucus solidarity by crossing the floor, an act that he was obliged by party rules to punish with a one-week suspension from caucus.  

But then Payman doubled down on her principled stance by stating on national television that she would be willing to cross the floor again should another vote arise on Palestinian statehood. Again, Albanese felt his hand was forced, with him issuing her with an indefinite suspension. 

Payman’s suspension has proven divisive, with many Labor members and supporters expressing outrage that she would violate her sacred pledge of caucus solidarity and draw media attention away from key Labor initiatives, such as the revised stage 3 tax cuts.  

Others, such as the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, have seen events through a different lens, saying it was “disturbed by the suggestion that towing the Labor Party’s line is more important than standing up for the rights and lives of Palestinians as they are slaughtered in Gaza.” 

Ultimately, both Payman and Albanese were placed in an ethical dilemma, with competing obligations pulling them in different directions. However, the episode raises deeper questions about whether politicians should be allowed to vote on matters of conscience or principle, and whether it is justified for a political party to punish them for doing so. 

Ethical tension

When we vote for a politician based on their stated values and principles, we might expect they stand by them and vote accordingly when they’re in parliament. However, that’s often not the case. 

Members of parliament are typically bound to vote for – and publicly support – their party’s agreed position, even if that position contradicts their own. In fact, since its inception in 1891, Labor has maintained a strict policy of caucus solidarity, with members pledging to uphold it as sacrosanct.  

This means Labor members are free to argue forcefully for their views inside caucus meetings, but once the caucus has decided on a position, they are bound to vote for it. This has sometimes put Labor members in a difficult position, such as when Labor Senator Penny Wong was obliged to vote against same-sex marriage in 2008, despite her deep commitment to marriage equality. 

In keeping with its traditional liberal roots, and the notion that it’s a “broad church”, the Liberal Party takes a relatively softer stance, ostensibly allowing members to cross the floor on matters of principle. However, even though the Liberal Party doesn’t require its members to make a pledge of caucus solidarity, they are still strongly encouraged to vote with the party, and often suffer punishment if they go against the party line. 

The exception is when the leadership of a political party announces a “free” or “conscience” vote. These are rare, and are typically related to bills with a strong ethical element, such as abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research. In these cases, members are released from their obligations to vote with the party. However, over the last few decades the ALP has been less likely to allow a conscience vote than the Liberal Party, and the bill on Palestinian statehood that Payman crossed the floor on was not declared as a conscience vote by Labor. 

Caucus solidarity is often justified in terms of the party being more stable – and more effective in governing – if it works as a collective rather than a group of individuals with diverse views. If every member of parliament were free to vote on any issue, then parties would have to work harder to curry favour with each representative, possibly watering down bills in order to get them on board. That could result in weaker legislation and prevent a party from genuinely being able to enact the policy platform that it presented to the electorate. It would also make it harder to vote for a party platform, knowing that any member might vote against it at any time. 

Still, party solidarity could be seen as a political solution that involves an ethical compromise, not only preventing politicians from voting according to their deeply held views – which might be the very views that got them elected – but also requiring them to act inauthentically by publicly supporting a view they don’t personally hold.

Ultimately, political leaders – Anthony Albanese included – have a choice to make when faced with the dilemma of a sitting member crossing the floor: which is more important, solidarity or principle? And voters have a choice of whether to vote for a candidate, knowing that they might be prevented from voting in accordance with their values and principles.


Image: Lukas Coch, AAP Photo 


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