Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Family First- An Analysis (part 1)
In 2004 and 2005 I wrote about the new and Federally untested political party, Family First. Family First, as a party with niche appeal but larger ambitions, instinctively knew that the only path to parliamentary success was to cultivate preference deals with the major parties. The perception among the Conservative parties at the time was that they had natural "fellow travellers" in the shape Family First. Mutually beneficial deals were struck with them in a majority of seats for an exchange of preferences. Family First were cocky enough of the support they assumed the Coalition would provide to ask their suitors to sign up to a raft of policy positions in exchange for their preferences. Labor, more wary, still felt that a deal with FF had strategic merit in the Victorian Senate contest, assuming that FF would drop out well before other players and that the flow of preferences would deliver Labor an extra seat ahead of the Greens. In a stunning miscalculation, Labor preferences ensured that Family First's Steven Fielding secured the party its first Federal win, despite a primary vote of only 1.77%. Until recently, I would have said that Labor's post-election embarrassment at helping to elect Fielding would have ensured that such a preference deal would never be struck again. However, with Kevin Rudd at now at the helm of the party, perfectly happy to play the religion card if it greases his path to the Lodge, anything is possible. Mark Latham's bile must be rising still.
However Family First protest their political independence, it remains true that they overwhelmingly gave preference to, and received preference from, the Liberal and National parties. Family First did not preference a single Labor candidate anywhere in Australia in 2004 (correction: FF preferenced Labor ahead of the Liberals in the seats of Brisbane and Leichhardt because the candidate Ingrid Tall is a Lesbian and Warren Entsch is in favour of gay marriage). Similarly, their efforts to claim independence from their churchish origins, their founders and sponsors in the Assemblies of God Church movement, were singularly unsuccessful, a subject I have written much on (and at much personal cost). Their progress since 2004 (if any) in establishing a party structure worthy of a mainstream political force will be the subject of part two of this article.
The Coalition, having struck this deal in 2004, should be asking themselves how the deal has panned out. Now Family First have had nearly three years to show their disposition towards the Government, what has their grace and favour have gained them?
An Analysis of Family First's Performance:
This article seeks to present an analysis which will bring some facts to bear on this question. I have analysed all Senate divisions since 2001 to assess the overall behaviour of independent Senators in general, to see if Senator Fielding has been as good a performer as others in similar circumstances. Additionally, I have analysed all the Senate divisions since Family First took their seat to see how they have disposed themselves to the major parties. The source data I have used is freely available at the Parliamentary web site.
It should be admitted that any Senator sitting as an independent or for a micro-party takes on a disproportionate workload, seeing as they must act in some capacity as a spokesperson in every portfolio imaginable, as well as participating in votes and debate in the Senate chamber, and receive delegations from lobby groups, constituents and colleagues.
Senator Steve Fielding took office in July 2005 having been elected in October 2004. From that time until the end of June 2007 there have been 588 divisions in the Senate, divided between the Senate sitting as the full chamber and the Senate in Committee.
In comparison, there were 443 Senate divisions in the preceding four and a half years, between February 2001 and June 2005. This suggests an interesting observation in and of itself: The tempo of senate divisions in the two years of the current parliament is very nearly triple (x 2.98) than that of the preceding four and a half years. This is no doubt a direct reflection of the Coalition's wish to maximise its rare majority in both houses.
The next relevant statistic regards attendance. Since taking office, Senator Steve Fielding has been absent for 148 divisions, yielding an attendance rate of 75%. How does this stack up? Should one could be forgiving of such absences, considering a party with only one sitting member would find it difficult to be in the Senate chamber for every division? Let's look for a reasonable parallel.
There have been four independent senators in recent history to whom we can look for a comparison.
Senator Brian Harradine served as an independant Senator for Tasmania between 1975 and his retirement in 2005.
Analysis of the Parliamentary records between February 2001 and June 2005 showed Senator Harradine was present and voted in 216 of these divisions, or 48% of the time.
One Nation had Senator Len Harris representing them as the party's sole Senator over the same period. He was present for 180 divisions, a relatively disappointing 40% attendance rate. I am among those who supported One Nation for their ideals but became profoundly disenchanted by their lazy, undisciplined approach. This is one reason why.
Senator Shayne Murphy sat as an independent from February 2002 after resigning from the Labor party. While he sat as an independent, there were a total of 377 divisions. Murphy voted in 163, or 43% of the time.
Senator Meg Lees sat as an independent after Feb 2003 after resigning from the Australian Democrats. She formed the unsuccessful Australian Progressive Alliance party and lost her seat in 2005. Over this time there were 339 divisions, and she voted in 233 of them, an average of 69%, making her a diligent legislator in comparison. Lees broke away from the Democrats after concluding they had drifted too far to the left. Her concern seems amply justified, considering the Democrats sided with the ALP in 91% of divisions between 2001-2005 and an astonishing 99.3% of the time (4 votes from 588) since 2005. So much for the "party of balance" the Democrats claimed to be.
It must be remembered that there are many Senate divisions that are of a purely procedural nature and both the major parties vote the same way. This was true a surprising 59% of the time from 2001-2005, but dropped sharply to 32% of the time after 2005.
However, if one excludes these times and only counts the times that Family First voted with one major party and against the other (that is, on votes of substance where the major parties disagreed) then Family First favoured the Opposition 175 times (30% of all votes) as opposed to the Coalition 119 times (20% of all votes).
Even more extraordinarily, Family First voted with the Greens on no fewer than 198 occasions, when both were voting in concert to oppose the Government, a significant 34% of the time. The natural antipathy between Family First and the Greens makes this revelation of more than passing interest.
Family First saw fit to oppose both major parties on 87 occasions, or 15% of the time.
One could look at the above results in a number of ways.
Firstly, Steve Fielding's attendance in the Senate chamber reflects well on his diligence as a parliamentarian, equalling that of ex-Democrat Meg Lees, and greatly exceeding that of other independent Senators of recent time.
Secondly, Family First have distinguished themselves by not slavishly following the voting pattern of either major party. However, this should cause the Coalition to totally re-assess whether Family First deserve their preferences in the unqualified way they have been dispensed previously. Family First voted with Labour 50% more often than the Coalition when real differences of opinion (not just procedural matters) were at stake. The Coalition should be very cautious about giving Family First any endorsement when they now have a track record like this.
I approached this article with a measure of scepticism concerning Family First's motives and predispositions as a new political party, and I am on the record as being highly critical of them in the past. In assessing their Federal parliamentary performance, I was surprised with what I found. Much was done in 2004 that was badly planned, ineptly executed and caused many Christians a deal of grief because of the way in which the entanglements between Church and State were mishandled, especially in NSW. My concerns in this area remain, but at least Senator Fielding has given a balanced and applied face to the party in the Senate, even if it is at variance with what the Coalition had been led to expect from it.
In the next instalment of my analysis, I will focus on the party structure Family First promised would be constructed at the time of the 2004 Federal Election, and what (if any) progress has been made since. I will ask what evidence there is concerning whose views have been represented by Family First in their voting patterns detailed here, and whether they show signs of growing into a genuinely broad-based political movement.