Minority government…or, how we learned to love consensus and cope without the two-party system

BY BEN HABIB.

Yes, it’s been an exiting time to be a political scientist in Australia.  We’ve got our first hung parliament for sixty years and all the key players are having an interesting time adjusting to the realities of this new political environment.

Report Card: Minority Government Negotiations

Labor may have performed poorly during the election campaign, but in the time since they have trumped the Coalition on all fronts.  Julia Gillard has played the negotiating game well in courting the independents and the Greens.  Once the hot air of the election campaign subsided, she has shown good leadership and managerial nous.  If ever there was a time for an Australian Prime Minister to exercise feminine social skills, it is now.

Gillard and the ALP have understood the dynamics of politics under a hung parliament far better than the Coalition.  Perhaps their near-defeat at the polls gave them an opportunity for a bit of honest self-reflection after receiving the mauling at the polls they deserved after their performance in government over the preceding twelve months.  Gillard’s humility and conciliatory tone was precisely the attitude required to woo the independents.

By contrast, Tony Abbott presented himself in the vein of a monarch fit to rule by divine right, claiming a mandate to rule as if the Coalition had won by a landslide.  His lack of humility is no doubt what Robert Oakeshott was referring to at his press conference yesterday when he said that no-one has claimed a mandate to govern.

The Coalition didn’t help themselves with that gaping hole in their campaign commitment costings, nor by their disingenuous defence of it.  Tony Abbott’s rhetoric of fear, which had worked so well during the election campaign, proved ineffectual and inappropriate to the task of cobbling together a minority government.  Over the past two weeks, the Coalition has not presented itself as a credible alternative government.

The independent members of the House of Representatives have done exactly what they should by maximising their leverage to obtain the best outcomes for their electorates.  For Tony Windsor, it is about “using the political system to advantage the people we represent.” That’s how our parliamentary system was originally designed to work, before rigid two-party politics became the norm.

Could there be a lesson in this for the voters of Indi and Farrer?  Tony Windsor seems to think so, encouraging the people of regional Australia to vote strategically instead of feebly handing their votes over the Coalition election after election.

The independents have also used this leverage to provide the nation with the gift of parliamentary reforms, which may make the House of Representatives are more democratic organ.  If we are fortunate, these reforms will raise the bar for the political process in this country.

Minority government is not the same thing as a coalition

But let’s be clear about the nature of their support for the ALP in forming this minority government (which also rings true for the ALP-Greens relationship in the House of Representatives).   The independent members have agreed not to vote against supply bills—budget legislation—and to support the government in any no-confidence motions.

Supply bills are important because they authorise government spending; if blocked, government departments get starved of money and the services they provide grind to a halt.  Obviously such a situation is not tenable over a long period, which by necessity can lead to a double dissolution election.  By supporting supply bills, the independent members are ensuring that the bureaucratic arm of government—the public service—will continue to function unimpeded.

To form government, the ruling party must have a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.  No-confidence motions are traditionally put before the house by the opposition in the hope of defeating or weakening the government. The motion is passed or rejected by means of a new parliamentary vote, which a majority government will always win.  These happen all the time in the parliament and usually amount to nothing.

However, for obvious reasons, the no-confidence motion takes on greater significance in a hung parliament.  The independent members have promised to support the ALP in any no-confidence motion, so that it can see out its full parliamentary term.

As far as formal linkages go, that is all the independents have agreed to.  They continue to reserve the right to vote independently on any other piece of legislation.  This is a win for democracy; where the House of Representatives is traditionally a government rubber stamp, now it has become a forum for genuine debate, because legislation cannot pass from the house except by consensus with the independents (or Coalition members crossing the floor).

Therefore, any piece of legislation that passes from the House of Representatives to the Senate is likely to be more inclusive and is unlikely to be ideologically extreme (which is why the Lib-Nat’s warnings of a new ALP-Greens left wing coalition are patently ridiculous).  The big question going forward however will be the ability of the ALP minority government to get any important big-ticket legislation through the house.  This is likely to fluctuate depending on the issue and may play out differently for each piece of legislation.

This is what the alternative to two-party politics looks like

The public mood during the election campaign was one of disdain for the predictable mediocrity of two-party politics in this country.  The primary vote swing away from the major parties reflected this.  The larger than usual informal vote reflected this.  Well folks, it looks like we got what we wished for.  This is what life after two-party politics looks like.

Are we ready for it?  More than ever, the ALP and the Coalition are going to take any opportunity to tear the other down and reclaim ascendency in this hung parliament and restore the predictability of the old two-party game.  No-one will be surprised if yesterday’s flimsy deal breaks down and we find ourselves back at the polls during the next twelve months.

The question is, will the voters hold their nerve and make the major parties play by the rules of the new multi-party game by continuing to vote strategically, as they did at this election?  Will the electorate blink and settle for the predictable mediocrity of two-party antagonism, rather than take a chance on forcing our elected officials to engage in an improved form of consensus politics?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, the times we live in demand more from the political process than the old paradigm is capable of delivering.  It’s up to us, the voters, to ensure that our elected representatives are up to the task.  That requires all of us to continue to be politically engaged all the time and strategically astute come polling day.

All in all, I think Robert Oakeshott summed it up best: “This is going to be a cracking Parliament.  It’s going to be ugly, but it’s going to be beautiful in its ugliness.”  Let’s wait and see!

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Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at politicsalburywodonga@gmail.com.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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2 responses to “Minority government…or, how we learned to love consensus and cope without the two-party system

  1. I am interested in whether Rob Oakeshott will accept the offer of a Ministery in the Gillard Cabinet. It must be very tempting for him if for no other reason than he gets to be a much bigger player in the new concensus model that he is advocating. It would certainly be easier to accomodate an independent into cabinet than someone like Malcolm Turnbull, if you are trying to construct a cabinet based on talent rather than partisanship. Not convinced that we will see any legislation come out of it though. With the Greens pulling one way and the counrty Independents pulling the other concensus could be hard to find. It certainly seems like the Coalition are having a much harder time figuring out how this new paradigm might work and have very quickly forgotten their leaders call for a’ gentler more collegiate’ polity. Still it is much easier to be gracious and accomodating in victory than in defeat.

  2. How the Greens and Independents line up in the HoR will probably depend on the specific legislation at hand. There are some areas of converging interests and some where they are poles apart. This is why consensus-building will be so important during this parliament.

    On Oakeshott, if he takes up a Cabinet portfolio, he’s then very much in the tent with Labor, so if there’s any “maladministration”, his name will get pinned to it too.

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