I HAVE twin interests in minority government. 1) firstly, I am interested in multi-party politics and the rise of the greens and green politicians: and 2) secondly I am interested in policy innovation and policy pathways and the role that minority government has played here in Tasmania.
I come from a tradition in the School of Government at the University that has come to see the policy benefits and policy creativity that governing in minority can generate. The late Professor Mick Townsley, and my colleagues Peter Larmour and Marcus Haward have each studied this.
The policy creativity of the Angus Bethune government (1969-72) is quite well known and documented, indeed it is that government that we have to thank for much of our early environmental policy including our national parks legislation that was intended to save Lake Pedder.
Despite its short-lived and turbulent nature the Field minority government (1989-92) is also primarily remembered for its economic policy innovation for which Tasmanians have become eternally grateful, as well as for, again, its significant environmental policy innovations as documented by Pete Hay .
The Rundle minority government (1996-8) is relatively undocumented, something which we hope to remedy at the School of Government, with the exception of course of Tony McCall’s political chronicles . However its significant break-through reforms are well known - gun law reform, gay law reform, an apology to the stolen generation and so forth.
Policy reform in Tasmanian green-supported minority governments seems to me to fall into several categories. First there are signature reforms - or those associated with the formation of the minority arrangements. Then there are process reforms - or those that have largely improved parliamentary functioning. Lastly there are crash or crash through reforms that often end up crashing .
So far, so good. There are policy benefits it seems and therefore benefits to the Tasmanian community and its future generations to be gained from the experience of bargaining with independents and other parties in order to be able to govern in minority. And indeed this has been a recurring political practice throughout Tasmanian history.
Only a one-seat majority
It is fair to say that the Labor party has dominated state parliamentary power for at least half of the last century. However of its period of dominance (1934-82, less 1969-72) of 45 years, about half of this time was spent with only a one seat majority. And twice Labor relied upon independents to break into and indeed to hold onto power.
This is a significant situation to bear in mind with the Greens entering the political fray in the early 1970s and making headway into state parliament a decade later. Green politics in fact recast very delicately balanced electoral patterns sufficient to expose what has historically been a very slender Labor lead in the House of Assembly.
So we can now say that throughout history there have been many incidents where governments short of a majority have been kept in power by deals done with independents and more recently the Greens. The popular demonising of minority government is a reaction to the contentious ideological agenda that the Greens bring to the table.
Because it is not only delicate electoral balances but also the consensus between the two traditional political parties on much of Tasmania’s economic agenda that has been thrown into sharp relief by the Greens. Green politics was founded in this state by conservationists with no where to go with their demands but eventually into state parliament itself. In this sense it is the traditional parties that have put them there.
On this point, I will digress slightly to observe that a colleague Jeremy Moon has identified what he calls the relatively common incidence of majority government arrangements around Australia.
On average just under one in three of what he calls ‘state years’ between 1910 and 1944 were administered by minority governments in Australia, and one in six state years between 1945-77. the fact that there were no minority governments between 1977-89 is then exceptional he says rather typical as recent times have shown.
Between 1989-95, four of the six Australian states witnessed minority government. Tasmania (1989-92); South Australia (1989-93) and New South Wales (1991-95). More recent times have seen two minority governments - in South Australia and in the ACT - with recent minority governments also in Victoria and QLD .
However, none of these governments have been as challenged by their minority partners as minority governments in Tasmania have been by their Green supporters. Green supported minority governments have thus far been conflictual affairs, without popular legitimacy, short lived and characterised by strained relations.
So who benefits, if not who wins, from minority government? I would say, looking at Australian minority governments and those abroad in the European context, that the deal making potential which minority arrangements throw up can be exploited to the benefit of the community.
This is a pragmatic view of politics - the classic ‘who gets what when’ scenario, and there will always be self interested players exploiting the rare policy window that minority government provides. From the more esoteric perspective of deliberative democracy, there are also great benefits to breaking down political power, working harder to achieve political agendas across political divides, and debating issues on the floor of parliament.
That is not to deny the manner in which the community suffers from the uncertainty of minority government and the climate of fear that is whipped up over it by various players. Nor the precarious strain that it puts upon the state’s development and economic agendas. There is also from the Tasmanian experience a virtual certainty that minority government will be acrimonious and shortlived.
My colleague the late Ralph Chapman used to impress upon me that freedom is at its best in a rocking boat . It shouldn’t be an easy sail on a huge ocean liner of stability where you don’t need to do anything to get around. I guess if you accept that, then you would have to accept that in rough seas you may get tossed out in a rocking boat, and even end up getting hurt.
In response to questions from the floor, and remarks by the other speakers, I have the following further remarks to make:
With the prospect of minority government looming, indeed even without the prospect, it is incumbent upon party advisers to collect a range of models from around Australia on recent coalition, multi-party and minority government arrangements, and to chose from the best.
In terms of how to gain another party’s trust going into a minority arrangement, you won’t. However, with the correct mechanisms in place you will at least gain clarity, and where there is clarity of purpose, then trust may follow but is never guaranteed in the party political system.
With respect to the hope of Labor and the Greens coming together under one political tent, it is far too late for that. A formal coalition arrangement is the best you could hope for. But it could happen if the State evolved away from natural resource driven economic development.
In talking about ‘Who Benefits’ instead of ‘Who Wins’ I am stressing the primacy of the democratic process and its principles, over political and party political interest. Whilst fascist regimes once offered stability, they did so at great cost to democratic freedom and principles.
Richard Herr would be the expert on this issue, but no I don’t believe that constitutional arrangements on how to run a minority government are feasible because of the flexibility each arrangement would require and their differing circumstances. Some guide may be possible.
Larmour , P. (ed) 1990 The Greening of Government The Impact of the Labor/Green Accord on Government in Tasmania, Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration (Tasmania Division).
Haward, M. & Larmour, P. (eds) 1993. The Tasmanian Parliamentary Accord & Public Policy 1989-1992 Accommodating the New Politics? Federalism Research Centre, ANU, Canberra.
Including, as Richard Herr notes in personal communication, the reform of the legal code. See also Richard’s piece in the Examiner ‘State Election 2006: Hanging the Parliament?’ Tuesday 21 February p. 7.
Hay, P.R. 1990. ‘Greening the Political Agenda,’ in Larmour , P. (ed) The Greening of Government The Impact of the Labor/Green Accord on Government in Tasmania, Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration (Tasmania Division).
Hay, P.R. 1998. “Green Politics ‘in the system’” in Pakulski, J., & Crook, S., Ebbing of the Green Tide? Environmentalism, Public Opinion and the Media in Australia, Occasional Paper Series, No. 5, School of Sociology and Social Work, University of Tasmania, Hobart, pp. 103-125.
Hay, P. R. & Eckersley, R. 1993. ‘Tasmania’s Labor-Green Accord 1989-91: Lessons from Lilliput’ Environmental Politics, 2(1) Spring, pp. 88-93.
McCall, T. (1997) “Tasmanian Political Chronicle” Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol 43 No 2 1997 pp. 262-267.
McCall, T. (1998) “Tasmanian Political Chronicle” Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol 44 No 2, June 1998, pp. 298-307.
K. Crowley (2003) ‘Strained Relations: Governing in Minority in Tasmania’ in Australasian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2003, 17(2), pp. 55-71.
Moon, J. forthcoming “Black Sheep of The Democratic Family: Minority Government Reconsidered,” in K. Crowley (ed) Governing in Minority: the Liberal-Green Experience in Tasmania 1996-8.
Vickers G., 1972 Freedom in a Rocking Boat: Changing Values in an Unstable Society Pelican Books, Great Britain.
Speech presented to the ‘Minority Government: Who Wins?’ Forum
Australian Fabian Society - Hobart, Tasmania
Tuesday 21 February 2006
Dr Kate Crowley is Deputy Head School of Government and Deputy Dean of Graduate Research,
University of Tasmania