Image for The possibility of minority government

Recent political events such as the May 2009 Legislative Council elections, the Pembroke by-election and two recent opinion polls suggest strongly that the mood of electoral change is abroad in Tasmania.  This, in turn, appears to guarantee that Tasmanian voters will be regaled with is a stream of allegations over the next four months about the dangers or joys of minority Government or, as some would prefer, “power sharing Government”.  Much of this discussion will be biased and even more misinformed.  Some thirty years of commenting on Tasmanian elections make this prediction an absolute certainty for me!

My part in this evening’s debate (HERE) is to help set the historical context for understanding this issue by reviewing the Tasmanian experience.  I want to do this from two perspectives.  The first is a brief historical development of majority Government within the Westminster tradition.  The second is an overview of Tasmania’s recent encounters with minority Government and what this might mean for “power sharing” Government.  To reach this point, I want to begin by addressing the importance of “power sharing” for democratic governance. 

“Power Sharing” and Democratic Governance

All democracies require that governmental power be limited on the grounds that all public power derives from the people and the people only give their power to government on conditional (limited) terms.  In order for power to be limited it must be restrained and this means it must be shared in some way.  Indeed James Madison, one of the framers of the American Constitution, argued more than 200 years ago that the “accumulation of all powers . . . in the same hands . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

The architecture of democracy, however, permits many designs to achieve the aim of limiting power by sharing it amongst many hands.  The American system does it institutionally through the checks and balances of separated powers.  Other democratic designs seek to achieve it through constitutional and other legal constraints while still others through managing political processes as did the failed mandated power sharing arrangements in the 1997 Fiji constitution. 

But, as with any architecture, the value of any design very much depends on what function the structure is intended to serve.  That is, the design must suit the purpose.  What does the design of our Westminster system tell us about the value of distinguishing between power sharing Governments and minority Governments for Tasmania?  Very little it might seem.  Both are similar in that they focus on the role of political parties as vehicles for exercising Executive power.  This contrasts strongly with, say, a vastly different design such as the American system of checks and balances.  In this case, power sharing is exercised through governmental institutions and the sharing of decision-making is between and amongst arms of government rather than within a single arm. 

Westminster and Governmental Power

Since 1688, the Westminster system has demanded that executive power be held accountable to, and through, the Parliament.  The way this is done is requiring those commissioned by the Crown as Ministers to have the confidence of the Parliament to retain their commissions.  It is important to note here that by “Parliament” we mean a majority of the Parliament – not the entire membership.

The need for majority support in the Parliament to get and keep Ministerial power had a natural consequence.  Cliques of like-minded (or mutually ambitious) Members formed over time within the Parliament to improve their chances to hold on to power.  These cliques were not especially durable but they quickly became institutionalised when democratic reform extended the franchise during the 19th Century.  These groups formed political parties outside the Parliament to contest mass elections so they could win enough seats to keep or win a majority in Parliament.

The formation of political parties was critical to our contemporary understanding of the issue of minority Government in Westminster systems like Tasmania.  The political elites who wanted power needed to capture enough seats in Parliament in order to do this.  And to win these seats they needed the organisation of a political party.  Notice what this development did to elections.  An individual candidate really did not need a political party to win a single election.  However, political parties were necessary to win the large number of seats needed to claim a majority to form Government. 
 
Political parties strengthened their internal structures to win the large numbers of seats required and, in doing this, the party expected a great deal from the MPs they helped to elect. The imposition of discipline upon the party’s MPs reached such an extent that by the early 20th Century that it became patently evident that in reality MPs were delegates of their party rather than representatives of their constituencies. 

For many political theorists of a century ago this could not be democratic.  One of these critics was our very own Andrew Inglis Clark.  He distrusted the power of political parties, especially their unelected administrative wings, and wanted an electoral system that kept the party elites from controlling everything or at least made room in Parliament for more diversity of representation. 

Some of you might well be asking yourselves why would political parties even dream of believing there could be a democratic value in reducing MPs to the status of ciphers – delegates of the party sent to Parliament to do the bidding of the party as instructed – rather than serving as responsible representatives of their communities.  The answer is in the idea of an electoral mandate.  Not surprisingly this justification was discovered about the same time that the criticisms appeared in the academic literature!

The electoral mandate argument holds it is more democratic for the voter to have the certainty of what his/her vote means than allowing an MP to decide all issues according to his/her conscience.  Under the electoral mandate theory, the people vote for a party to implement its platform but the party can only deliver on its promises if it can be certain its Members will adhere to party discipline.  Thus MPs who act as party delegates give the voter more control over the outcomes of the Parliament than the voters could have with a House full of independents where all outcomes had to be negotiated on the floor of the Parliament. 

This argument has both great strengths and enormous flaws that I cannot canvass in full tonight but just let me note that parties have so thoroughly abused the electoral mandate concept that few theorists can take it seriously except as a remote democratic ideal. 

I will return now to the matter of majority Government in the Westminster tradition.  As I have noted the system has evolved around the struggle to control the Parliament and the power that the people have given the Parliament.  Given this, we can see the benefits of having a majority – at least for the winners – and why it was desirable to organise to win a majority.  But, what if all the preparations and machinations failed and there was no majority?  How are things supposed to work when there is no majority party in Parliament? 

Within the Westminster design there are basically two answers – minority Government and coalition Government.  It is interesting that different Westminster systems tend to prefer one response over the other.  Canada, for example, generally appears to prefer minority Government.  Many others [e.g. Australia (federally)] have preferred coalition Government.  A coalition is an alliance of parties to create a majority, normally, after an election when no party has secured sufficient seats to govern in its own right. 

The difference between the answers is in the way the Executive (or “Crown”) relates to the Parliament.  Minority Government allows a single party to pursue its platform promises as far as it can through the Parliament without negotiating on the political platform it took into the election.  A coalition Government, on the other hand has to negotiate a new political agenda after the election amongst the parties that agree to form a Government.  This would normally require all the participating parties to sacrifice some of their election promises in order to accommodate other parties in the coalition. 

You will notice there are significant differences between these two approaches with regard to power sharing between and amongst the parties and institutions involved.  Minority Government means the governing party can adhere to its party platform but, as the Government, it has to share power with the Parliament since its agenda can only be passed with the support of a majority on the floor of the Parliament.  It retains the political initiative at the expense of the certainty of an outcome.  On the other hand, forming a coalition means the party can secure Executive dominance in Parliament but the power to exercise this dominance has to be shared between or amongst the allied parties. 

The Tasmanian Record

Eight out of 19 elections since the end of World War II have produced non-majority results and they have occupied about 24 years of these 64 years.  Basically this means that about 42% of Tasmanian Governments during this period have been non-majoritarian and they have sat for about 38% of the time.  The average life of a Parliament has been 3.3 years with majority Governments lasting about 3.6 years and the minority Governments averaging 3.0 years.  Although they have sat for slightly less long on average than majority Governments two of the three longest serving Parliaments since WWII were minority Governments. 

The point made earlier about Canada very much applies to Tasmania.  Only one of its eight non-majority electoral outcomes since WWII has resulted in a coalition Government.  This was the Liberal-Centre Party coalition of 1969 to 1972.  All the rest have been minority Governments.  No minority Government in the period since WWII has subsequently solidified its position by forming a coalition.  However, one majority Government did collapse into minority Government status before losing an election a few months later.  This was the 1979 Lowe Labor Government that finished as the Holgate Labor Government in 1982. 

The Implications for “Power Sharing” in 2010?

The historical record supports the likelihood that, if there is a non-majority electoral result in March next year, there will be power sharing but carried out by a minority Government acting alone with support of the cross benches.  It will share power with the Parliament every time it wants approval for a bill or any other action requiring Parliamentary support.  Far less likely is the prospective that there will be a coalition Government but this is not impossible.

However, the concept of power sharing seems to have been advanced to suggest that there could be “something in between”.  There are possibilities for arrangements that might fit somewhere in the political spectrum between minority Government and a formal coalition but these really only blur the edges of the two concepts.  One suspects that what some proponents of the concept envisage is a sort of “Clayton’s” coalition where two parties agree to negotiate and mutually support the Executive’s agenda through the Parliament without a formal alliance covering all their relations.

Such an arrangement could stretch from something like the Labor–Green Accord of 1989 to the present arrangement in South Australia where there is a shared Ministry but with qualified coalition conditions, despite the Rann Government having a majority in the Legislative Assembly.  This possibility may well be what some mean by “power sharing” but this raises a entirely new set of problems.  However, my time is up and I will have to leave these issues to the following speakers or to question time.