If this morning’s breathless reporting on the matter is to be believed, George Christensen’s decision to cross the floor to vote against his government colleagues yesterday has the potential to cleave the Coalition in two.
As is increasingly the case, this tabloid-ish depiction is more about attracting clicks than giving readers an insight into what actually happened.
Far from being a rogue MP intent on tearing his party’s government asunder, Christensen is desperately fighting for his ongoing political existence — an existence that depends primarily on the Coalition getting its act together and staying in government.
Christensen represents a marginal seat that is reportedly becoming increasingly supportive of One Nation. He needs to be seen to be fighting for the conservative and populist causes that his constituents support, but not in such a way that he brings down the government and loses his seat anyway.
Luckily for Christensen, he has been able to learn the dark art of going faux-rogue from the master himself, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s official biography boasts that he’s crossed the floor 28 times since being elected in 2005. But none of those votes made a material difference to the passing of government legislation. As psephologist Peter Brent recently noted, Joyce’s reputation as a maverick was based on him “publicly opposing government policy, crossing the floor when it made no difference, and threatening to do so when it would have”.
Unlike Labor, which could punish those of its MPs who crossed the floor with expulsion, Coalition backbenchers are free to do so without penalty. Coalition ministers are, however, bound by ministerial solidarity to support the party line, and they must resign from the ministry in order to cross the floor.
So Joyce and Christensen are far from alone in using this very public form of political dissent. Canberra press gallery doyenne Michelle Grattan crunched the numbers in 2013, finding that Coalition MPs had crossed the floor 504 times since 1949, with 29 Liberals and 18 Nationals crossing 163 times in the decade 2003 to 2013.
Christensen’s recent posturing is a continuation of this tradition, admittedly sharpened by the adoption of Joyce’s faux-rogue approach. He’s threatened to leave the Coalition if action wasn’t taken on a mandatory code of conduct for the sugar industry, and to cross the floor on a range of issues including a royal commission for the banks, and cuts to weekend penalty rates.
Accordingly, Labor has busily been orchestrating opportunities in the Parliament to pressure Christensen to put his words into action. Last week it was a procedural motion on legislation to create a commission of inquiry into the banks. Christensen let that one go through to the keeper, voting with the government because the motion would not have actually established the inquiry.
But the MP must have been stung by the jibes hurled at him by Labor leader Bill Shorten, who called the reluctant backbencher a “lion” in his home town of Mackay “and a mouse in Canberra”. On Tuesday, Labor created a similarly spurious chance for Christensen to prove he would put the interests of his electorate first, daring him to vote for a change to government legislation that mirrored his own private member’s bill to block cuts to penalty rates.
Christensen did cross the floor, but only once it was clear the government had the numbers to win the vote. He stayed out of the chamber until those numbers were confirmed. The “rebel” backbencher later told the media that, as a member of the Turnbull government, he supported the government and had “voted on the issue, not on confidence in the government”.
Despite what the pundits say, yesterday’s floor-crossing by Christensen doesn’t threaten the Turnbull government — not this time, not next time, nor the time after that. The bluster and posturing are little more than necessary theatrics, giving backbenchers the latitude to play to their electorates while keeping the Coalition’s diverse interests firmly within the tent.