It might not seem like a huge drama to cross the floor of parliament – unless you’re the person doing the crossing. That’s exactly what Catherine Cusack (Liberal) NSW MLC did and it was all in the cause of saving koalas.
It’s no minor deed to cross. Cusack says it was even more meaningful for her as her loyalty to the Liberal Party was extremely strong. Cusack was not voted in by a constituency, but by the Liberal Party.
‘I was in the Legislative Council, which means that I got elected on a statewide vote. My election was by the Liberal Party, who selected me and put me high enough in the team so that I would get a seat in Parliament.
‘It’s a very profound loyalty to the Liberal Party for everybody who’s elected to the Upper House.’
Cusack says that when you are part of a party team in the Upper House, crossing the floor is something that you really wouldn’t want to do.
‘You never want to be in that position. What you want is your loyalty and good policy to be aligned with what the government’s doing. Then you never feel under any pressure to be speaking out or crossing the floor. You have a voice in the party room – you put your argument forward, [even if] you lose the argument, you then “bind” to the decision [of the party] and this ensures that government, of any persuasion, is functional in the parliament.’
Cusack says voting for things you might not be aligned with is a price that you pay when you sign on to your team.
‘If you had asked me at the beginning of my term, “Catherine, would you cross the floor?” I would have said “No, I’d never cross the floor. I would resign before crossing the floor”, that was always my view.’
Cusack says with the koalas, ‘the first time it came up, it was political deal between the Liberal and the National parties. It hadn’t been dealt with properly, either in Cabinet or in the party room.
‘Then I found out that the legislation that was being put into Parliament by the National Party minister didn’t even reflect the decision of the cabinet.
‘So the process was absolutely broken at every level. I’d been trying for weeks to get the legislation reviewed and improved. Promises were made – none of them were kept. So by the time it came into the House, I considered whole thing corrupt. It was not a normal Bill, on any level.
‘So, it wasn’t just that I disagreed with it on principle; it should never have been before the House. When I crossed the floor, it was actually on a motion to refer the Bill to an inquiry. I didn’t even vote against the Bill, I just referred it to an inquiry. Now, the government didn’t want that scrutiny and I said, “but if all the good things you’re saying about it are fine, then surely there’s no problem with having an inquiry into it?” But obviously, as soon as it was referred to a parliamentary inquiry, they pulled the Bill altogether, rather than having it scrutinised.’
The Bill would see, amongst other things, thousands of hectares of bush cleared including up to 25 metres of land from a landholder’s property fence line. The Bill would amend the Rural Fires Act to allow clearing without an approval on rural property boundaries to reduce bushfire risk. This would place at risk many koala food trees and habitat and be detrimental to the koala population which was already stressed.
Cusack says the Bill confirmed everything she thought about what they were doing.
‘It was completely wrong – it was outrageous, and I’m very disappointed with my party for not adhering to those conventions and processes. It was actually very similar to what we’ve just seen with Scott Morrison – swearing himself into all of those ministries – it’s exactly the same problem. You have conventions that everybody relies on, in terms of signing on and lending your integrity to that decision, even a decision that you don’t agree with, as long as it’s been through the processes correctly. As long as you’ve had those opportunities, then, that’s what you’ve signed on for. You have to do it – you have to vote with the government.
‘This case, from the highest levels, all of those conventions had been secretly trashed and I therefore felt no duty whatsoever to “bind” to that awful decision that came out.’
And cross the floor for koalas she did. Twice!
Cusack says the koala population is vanishing and she is again putting her time and energy into Australia’s furry favourite. Cusack is creating an event to be held this weekend with scientists, conservationists and wildlife carers, who will gather at Coffs Harbour to highlight the extinction risk facing koalas in NSW and policy solutions to protect koalas and their habitat.
Cusack says that like every other Australian she loves koalas.
‘I grew up on a farm at Yass and our koalas had all vanished, and that’s why we’re using the term for this conference – The Vanishing. Our population vanished. I remember saying to my mother, “Do you think they might come back?” And she’d say, “Oh they might, they could…” I just remember always looking in gum trees. Obviously, there were no koalas, but I didn’t know that.
‘It was viewed in our family as something very sad.’
The conference will be held at The Cavanbah Centre, Coffs Harbour 9am–5pm, this Saturday, 29 October.
To coincide with the conference, the National Parks Association is organising a meet-and-greet event on Friday and a Koala Family Picnic over 12–3pm on Sunday at the North Coast Regional Botanical Garden – all welcome!
Tickets for the events can be found here NSWKoalaConference.eventbrite.com or register to watch remotely at tinyurl.com/TheVanishingKoala.