On Q&A last night, New South Wales Senator Arthur Sinodinos very mildly challenged his party on the topic of the Newstart allowance: “Over time [Newstart] should be higher. That’s probably a slightly radical thing for me to say here … but my observation is this does raise an issue that should be considered at some stage.”
Sinodinos noted he was expressing a “personal view” not government policy. So, what has brought on this long-resisted shift from a high profile Liberal? Could the coming election (and the Coalition’s expected loss) have anything to do with it?
Crikey looks back at some notable dissenters, to examine the various motivations (ambition, desperation, genuine ideological difference) that cause politicians to start singing from a new hymn sheet.
It would be absurd not to include Abbott in this list, who is to breaking ranks what Chuck Berry is to rock’n’roll. Since his bloodlust was temporarily sated in August of last year, Abbott has been relatively quiet. However, facing a great deal of pressure in his seat, he returned to an old favourite — jumping to the right of his prime minister. Last week he stood by his assertion — originally made at Pauline Hanson’s book launch last year — that One Nation should be preferenced above Labor and the Greens “because, let’s face it, we have been able to work constructively in the Senate with One Nation”.
What is it with party whips so relentlessly failing to achieve the discipline they require from others? Just as George Christensen kept introducing private bills counter to Coalition policy and drafting resignation letters that would never be sent, former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon was something of a malcontent when he held the role. Indeed, he was the mouthpiece for party disaffection in the year leading up to Kevin Rudd wrestling the PM’s chair back from Julia Gillard in 2013.
First, he joined Coalition figures in criticising Gillard over her decision to rule out replacing the aging Collins-class submarines with fast attack nuclear subs — and look, Crikey can see the irony of ruling out the nuclear option, given the party was in the thrall of Gillard and Rudd’s mutually assured destruction. Then, he called on Gillard and then-treasurer Wayne Swan to back away from their long-held promise to deliver a budget surplus. When Rudd returned to the lodge, Fitzgibbon returned to cabinet.
Of course, if we look past the chaos of the past decade, where clattering dissent became a constant low level hum in the background, it was once quite an event when an MP (particularly a minister) broke ranks with long-held policy positions. We’ve spoken about Joe Lyons before, as a political turncoat who, whatever else you want to say about him, quit his party for sincere ideological reasons. When the depression hit in 1930 and Lyons was made acting treasurer, he pushed for a more conservative response to the crisis than prime minister James Scullin, who promptly re-appointed former treasurer Ted Theodore.
Lyons resigned from the cabinet — as did minister for customs and trade James Fenton — and then the Labor Party in 1931. The pair, with four other right-wing Labor MPs joined Billy Hughes’ United Australia Party. Regardless of Lyon’s ideological purity, the move worked out well for him in a career sense. Later that year, a massive swing to UAP candidates saw them voted into power, and delivered Lyons to the prime minister’s office.
John Gorton & Malcolm Fraser
Harold Holt’s replacement prime minister John Gorton resigned on March 10, 1971 after a tied leadership ballot with his foreign minister William McMahon. The ballot had been preceded by a searing speech of resignation from then defence minister Malcolm Fraser, referring to Gorton’s “intolerable” disloyalty:
The prime minister, because of his unreasoned drive to get his own way, his obstinacy, impetuous and emotional reactions, has imposed strains upon the Liberal Party, the Government and the Public Service. I do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of prime minister, and I cannot serve in his government.
What no one saw coming was Gorton’s decision to run for (and win) the role of deputy leader, and, ironically, take over from Fraser as minister of defence. Gorton spent roughly five months in the portfolio, and consistently broke with MacMahon’s defence positions. This was largely over Gorton’s opposition to basing Australian forces overseas and his perception of Australia inadequate defence preparedness. Starting in August that year, in a move that would make Abbott proud, Gorton got six articles published in The Australian defending his prime ministership. This was a step too far for McMahon, who sought and obtained Gorton’s resignation for breaching cabinet solidarity (or…disloyalty).