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If it needs it, Australia can draw on significant experience of minority government

Australia is fortunate to have had the recent Labor minority government to draw lessons from. AAP/Lukas Coch

If it needs it, Australia can draw on significant experience of minority government

Though Malcolm Turnbull has declared victory in the 2016 election race, it remains unclear whether he will form a majority or minority government.

Australia has a wealth of experience of minority government. While it has only had one national minority government recently, every single state and territory has had a minority government since 1990. One-third of post-second-world-war state and territory governments were supported in minority – usually by crossbench independents.

We do notice the sensational minority governments when they occur. For example, the Greens in Tasmania supported a minority government (Labor) for only the second time in the world between 1989 and 1991; they then supported the Liberals between 1996 and 1998; and then Labor again, but with two ministries, between 2010 and 2013.

Most people noticed Nick Greiner’s scandal-plagued and difficult Coalition minority government in New South Wales in the 1990s, with Tony Windsor among others on the crossbench. And most noticed that South Australian Labor Premier Mike Rann included National Party members in his cabinet in the early 2000s.

Despite this wealth of experience, which resulted from the electorate voting for minor parties and “Others” in increasing numbers, the fact that Julia Gillard had to govern in minority federally between 2010 and 2013 was depicted as an absolute national crisis.

Remarkably, despite the destabilising politics levelled at it by the opposition, the Gillard government deftly negotiated and passed legislation at record levels – unlike the Abbott Coalition majority government that succeeded it.

First steps

No matter what the end result of the 2016 election, Australia is fortunate to have the recent 2010-13 Labor minority government to draw lessons from. The most significant lesson is that minority governments can successfully prosecute their policy agendas even while being destabilised.

Critical to this is learning the first, most obvious lesson of minority government: to lock in your supporters, most likely with policy concessions, and in return to gain their support on confidence and supply.

A minority government needs to be able to operate. For that it needs its budget, or supply, to be passed without issue. It also needs to be able to survive the inevitable no-confidence motions that will come from the opposition.

Without crossbenchers guaranteeing these two necessities, minority government is in for an uncertain ride. And the governor-general may want proof both are guaranteed.

This proof is typically a written agreement, like the one between the ACT Labor minority government and the Greens. But besides guaranteeing support, an agreement can commit to a joint vision, policies, reform opportunities, resources for crossbenchers, information provision, communication and agreed mechanisms for overcoming disputes.

There are any numbers of agreement styles to choose from. The Tasmanian Labor minority government of 2010-14 claimed it had no agreement with the Greens; it exchanged fairly explicit letters of arrangement with them instead.

Keep calm and deploy the right people

Just as there is no one style of agreement between minority governments and crossbenchers, so is there no one style of crossbencher. Government-crossbencher liaison must therefore be the province of very capable people.

Tasmanian Labor caretaker premier David Bartlett and Gillard separately provided just the right type of creative, pragmatic, calm and confident leadership that was required to pull off minority government, both after elections in 2010.

Anthony Albanese, as leader of the house, was the key operative who negotiated legislation through parliament at record rates with the Labor government in minority.

Turnbull warned before the 2016 election that minority government is an outcome that:

… would be a national calamity and something he would never even contemplate.

Labor leader Bill Shorten offered a more measured response, secure in his direct experience of the Gillard minority government.

It takes time, temperament and negotiation to construct minority government. It is hard work, but as it has become normalised at state level, conventions and expectations have accommodated it, and the fear-mongering has subsided.

Deal with whatever the electorate serves up

The shift away from the major parties is a trend that is not reversing, however incremental it may seem. It is reshaping Australian politics, including heightening the need for power-sharing governments.

Where the electorate feels line ball about the major parties, it will turn in increasing numbers to minor parties and “Others”. Witness the flight of South Australian voters to the Nick Xenophon Team and Queenslanders to One Nation.

Probably one of the most difficult lessons of minority government that then-opposition leader Tony Abbott could not abide in 2010 was to accept the parliament that the people had delivered and learn to deal with it. His constant derision and undermining of the Gillard minority government as less-than-legitimate was an insult to voters’ choices.

In the days following an election, if a minority government is a possibility, the right tone to adopt by political leaders is one of respect for both the voters’ choices and for the MPs who may prove to be pivotal crossbenchers.

This is a time for calm reflection, transparent reassurances and deft strategising, as we learnt in the 17 days it took in 2010 before Gillard emerged with a deal to secure minority government with independent and the Green support.