Canned pairs reveal Opposition's fruity strategy


Craig ThomsonThe practice of granting a pair allows an MP to be away from the chamber when there is sufficient reason. It serves the same purpose as a proxy vote, except it works in reverse. While a proxy would allow the absent member to vote in absentia, a pair means a member on the other side doesn't vote so as not to take unfair advantage of the member's absence.

The federal Opposition has played unrelentingly hard on pairs. Naturally Government members, whose vote is needed in the chamber, have not taken unauthorised leave. To do so would risk the Government's majority whenever a vote was called.

The purpose of the Opposition's actions is both practical and symbolic. It wants to make life difficult for Government MPs despite the impact on its own members. Furthermore it wants to emphasise the closeness of the numbers in parliament, whenever a Government member seeks leave. When the Government MP is a so-called 'baddie', like former health services unionist Craig Thomson (pictured), then even better.

The same is true when the Opposition wants to focus attention on particular issues, like the Carbon Tax. But the logic appears to have spread to any vote at any time.

Both Arts Minister Simon Crean and Liberal Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull were refused leave to attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley, despite the bipartisanship.

This attitude to pairs has led to some crazy situations, most recently when Thomson applied for medical leave. The Opposition queried Thomson's medical certificate. Not only did it request further information, but Warren Entsch, the Chief Opposition Whip, made personally intrusive speculations about his health.

All this might seem trivial. But there are broader consequences that a full analysis of the refusal of pairs would reveal. Who is really suffering from MPs being tied to their desks in the chamber unnecessarily?

Recently I was involved in an extremely silly example.

The 17th National Schools Constitutional Convention was held in Old Parliament House on 21–23 March. This event for 125 year 12 students from across the country is sponsored by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

Politicians from all sides of Parliament have addressed the students at past conventions. But this year all efforts to involve parliamentarians proved fruitless despite the fact that one from each side of the House of Representatives was invited. The usual reply was: 'I'll never get a pair.' Ultimately, the member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, was formally refused a pair on the day before the convention began.

The matter of pairs raises the wider question of the whole approach to voting in the Chamber.

Recently a senior minister, Chris Bowen, was unable to return to the chamber quickly enough from an interview in the ABC studio to vote in a division on an aspect of the carbon tax. The Speaker, Peter Slipper, was forced to cast a casting vote to pass the government's legislation.

Labor is no better in its own internal affairs. During the Rudd-Gillard leadership challenge Michelle Rowland, the member for Greenway, was denied a vote because she couldn't be physically present, having just had a baby. Earlier Liberal leadership challenges also had missing MPs.

The rationale is similar. You must be present to cast a vote even if you have a very good reason for being absent. The same thinking underlines the granting of pairs. Proxies address this problem as, incidentally, does absentee voting on polling day.

The physical presence of a person to vote should not be elevated to a sacred principle. Such thinking is archaic. In other walks of life this is recognised by a proxy vote, but not in parliament. It is time parliamentary voting was brought up to date. MPs should be allowed proxy or absentee votes. This would eliminate the unnecessary argument about justified absenteeism and pairs. Parliament would not suffer and the community would benefit.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, pairs, proxy votes, Labor, Rudd, Gillard, Chris Bowen



submit a comment

Existing comments

If proxy votes were allowed could this lead to a situation where the parliament is near empty, since presence is not required? The problem seems to be more driven by the similar numbers on each side - it is unlikely this will continue in subsequent parliaments.
JB | 30 March 2012

Proxy or absentee votes would make a mockery of debate, the ostensible purpose of which is to voice arguments that could change a member's mind. We know this almost never happens in Parliament, with party machines holding sway, but proxy/absentee votes would empty the Chamber even faster than the boring speeches or childish antics of those within - and further diminish the quality and importance of debate.
Ian Ker | 30 March 2012

1) I agree whole heartedly with Ian Ker, If the member is not present (s)he can not take part in debate and can not consider the latest data. (do they anyway) 2) Sorry to say I don't trust our elected members to use proxy votes honestly, it would need more scrutiners than polling day. 3) The Westminster convention was that the casting vote be cast for the status quo which means the Speaker would have been expected to vote against the carbon tax. But then again, labour threw convention out the window in a South Australian vote some years ago.
fred from townsville | 30 March 2012

If look at Parliament you can see that for most of the sitting time there are very few members present - often just the bare quorum. When there's a vote, the bells ring and they all come scurrying out of the bar, the gym, their offices ..... they're not listening to the debate (and who would) so the proxy vote would work.
Russell | 30 March 2012

The purpose of Parliamentary debate is to discuss and ponder the merits of this or that proposed legislation. The very existence of Parties with rigorous enforcement of voting along Party lines, makes a mockery of Parliamentary debate. It is also a perversion of democratic decision-making. Given this situation, it is entirely reasonable that proxy voting be introduced.
David Arthur | 30 March 2012

Well this is why we as the poor mugs who are paying for all this should watch / listen to Parliament (it used to be on FTA digital TV - I wonder what happened to that??) and see what our elected member is up to. And vote him/her out if not doing the job.
ian | 30 March 2012

The media and opposition attacks on Craig Thomson have reached a point where they are turned into persecution.

He has not been charged with anything and never will be.
Marilyn Shepherd | 30 March 2012

To mme the arguments in support of proxy voting highlight the very reason that proxy voting should not be allowed.
Company annual reports detail who has attended board meetings and how many and some other details of elected and executive board members. It appears to me that Companies are more regulated than government. But then again, who makes the regulations?
Fred from Townsville | 31 March 2012

Proxy voting,maybe, but in return raise the quorum from one-third of members to (say) 80-90% of votes exerciseable, to avoid the near-empty chamber. Like France, limit any MP to a maximum of two votes (so 90% of votes would still mean 45% of MPs). Qld Parliament has rules allowing proxy voting but still requires medical certification from the absent MP. One advantage of pairing is that it encourages the Govt to treat the Opposition slightly more nicely than the usual head-kicking logic of the Westminster system encourages them to. Since in a "normal" Australian lower house, the Opposition is going to lose the division, the Govt refusing them a pair won't make them any worse off - whereas the Opposition refusing the Govt a pair or two might, if numbers are close, see the Govt actually lose. Having said that, the Class Of 2010 is not a "normal" Australian lower house.
Rod Blaine | 04 April 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up