Rebels in the ranks? Hardly.

Members of parliamentary parties rarely cross the floor, because parties expect loyalty from their team members. … [Crossing the floor] may be seen to be giving greater preference to the needs of the electorate than the needs of the party. … A member of parliament who crosses the floor may be considered a traitor to their party.

[Parliamentary Education Office, “Crossing the Floor Fact Sheet”]

We believe that rebellions are a sign of a healthy democracy because they are evidence that a politician is putting the needs of their electorate before the needs of their party. But how many politicians actually do this?

Consider the example of our Prime Minister and Liberal Party MP Malcolm Turnbull. Despite presenting himself as a supporter of marriage equality, he has voted against it with his party on every occasion. Similarly, Labor MP Anthony Albanese recently issued a media release on his website that he “support[s] every effort to move children and their families out of detention and into the community as soon as possible”. And yet, back in 2012, he said nothing in Parliament to oppose his party passing a bill that made sure that they could continue to remove unaccompanied asylum seeker children to regional detention centres without having to consider the interests of the child.

Only 18 of the current 227 federal politicians have rebelled against their parties and crossed the floor since 2006 – 19 if we include Senator Nickolas Varvaris’ accidental rebellion. Not one of these rebels–accidental or otherwise–was from a Labor Party MP or Senator. This is because it requires all members to take a pledge that they accept and support the Party Platform and will be kicked out of the party if they rebel (though some have avoided expulsion in the past). Although the Liberal Party doesn’t forbid rebellion, the circumstances should be exceptional and there may be consequences, such as when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatened to sack any frontbencher who crossed the floor on the issue of marriage equality.

Our most rebellious politician in Parliament today (not including now Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie) is National Party MP Barnaby Joyce, and yet since 2006 he has only rebelled 0.96% of the time.

The fact that rebellions are so low in Australia today suggests that our representative democracy isn’t working. Instead of representing their electorates in Parliament where it counts (as required by our Constitution), our politicians are representing their parties. To make things worse, they’re hiding it from us by making inconsistent statements outside of Parliament.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The picture is very different in the United Kingdom – another representative democracy and the birthplace of the Westminster system of government on which much of Australia’s parliamentary system is based. There, rebellions are becoming the norm rather than the exception. British Conservative Party MP Peter Lilley believes that the growth in rebelliousness there is a result of growing interaction between MPs and their constituents, less party loyalty among voters and the fact that politicians are now more scared of losing their seats than they are of being punished by their party whips for rebelling – which is how it should be, in our opinion. And Mr Lilley agrees, writing that “I find Parliament even more worthwhile now than when I was first elected”.

Australian MPs and Senators haven’t always been so hesitant to cross the floor either. Liberal Party Senator Reg Wright rebelled 150 times in his eighteen year career between 1950 and 1978. And despite strong Labor Party discipline, 28 different Labor MPs rebelled between 1950 and 2004.

Information is crucial for citizens to be able to keep tabs on their representatives and make sure that how they vote matches what they say to us outside of Parliament. They Vote For You can help. With They Vote For You, you can look up your representatives, see how they’re really voting on issues you care about and then share what you learn on Twitter, Facebook or old fashioned word-of-mouth. That way we’ll all be in a better position to remind our representatives that they should be answering to us, not to their parties.

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