UK United Kingdom

Minority government likely to continue after Saturday

Much has been made of the ‘unusual’ nature of the minority Labor government over the past three years and there has been a sense that Australia is better off without it; that we need a return to the stability…

The Australian Coalition arrangement is set apart from coalitions elsewhere by its ongoing nature, even in opposition, and the fact that the parties go into elections with a common election platform. AAP

Much has been made of the ‘unusual’ nature of the minority Labor government over the past three years and there has been a sense that Australia is better off without it; that we need a return to the stability of majority government. But we have had numerous minority governments in Australia and they generally don’t raise an eyebrow.

Should Tony Abbott be elected on Saturday, he will likely join a long list of Liberal Prime Ministers who have led minority governments. Only a handful of elections has delivered the Liberal Party sufficient votes to govern in its own right.

Although the Coalition tends to be regarded as a single entity, it is worth remembering that it is in fact two distinct parties with their own constituencies. The Nationals frequently find themselves in a balance of power position in which their support could provide either Labor or the Liberals with the numbers to form government.

A question of distaste

It is therefore one of the anomalies of contemporary Australian political debate that minority government has been regarded with a degree of public distaste.

When Julia Gillard entered an agreement with the regional independents, responding to their needs in order to form government, her efforts were met with accusations of rent seeking and grubby deal-making.

When the Liberal Party offers sweeteners to the National Party with respect to the same constituency, rural Australia, there is nary a comment.

In Western Australia in 2008, the Nationals recognised their bargaining power and, although they ended up with the Liberals, they did go into the election as an independent entity with their own policy platform and a preparedness to bargain with both sides of politics. They were rewarded with the Royalties for Regions funding.

The WA case was an exception. The two parties usually go into an election campaign with a single voice but this does not detract from the fact that they have different policy emphases.

This is unremarkable as they are appealing to different constituencies. But it is not clear prior to an election how these differing priorities will play out if the Coalition wins government.

Trade and foreign investment

The issue of the foreign ownership of agricultural land is a case in point. The Nationals have long been concerned about foreign investors' purchase of prime agricultural land; Barnaby Joyce has been particularly vocal on this issue, calling for a tightening of the national interest test.

The Nationals policy calls for a register of foreign ownership of land and agribusiness, as well as a lowering of the threshold for the national interest test’s application by the Foreign Investment Review Board, from $244 million to $15 million.

When this issue was raised at the Leaders’ debate at Rooty Hill last week, Abbott was reportedly circumspect, possibly reflecting the nervousness in his own party on this issue. This position was of course in contrast to Kevin Rudd, who appeared to be developing Labor’s policy on this issue on the run.

When the Nats have been previously in government, they have secured the Cabinet portfolios of most interest to their constituency: agriculture, trade, regional development and transport.

Breaking with tradition

There is now a strong suggestion that an Abbott-led Coalition would break with tradition and allocate the trade portfolio to a Liberal Minister to pursue a vigorous free trade and foreign investment agenda, which is somewhat at odds with the Nationals push for tightening up the national interest test.

It is worth noting that some of the most strident disagreements between the Coalition partners in the past have been over trade-related issues: the devaluation of the Australian pound in the 1960s, tariff policy (on more than one occasion), export wheat marketing and so on.

The Australian Coalition arrangement is, by comparison with other political systems, an oddity. It is set apart from coalitions elsewhere by its ongoing nature, even in opposition, and the fact that the parties go into elections with a common election platform.

However, the fact remains that the parties are different and in the past have disagreed on a number of key policy issues; the National Party has even vetoed the selection of two Liberal leaders as Prime Minister.

It would be a mistake to extrapolate from the apparent unity going into an election to assured unity on every issue in government.

It should also be remembered that, in minority government, the junior partner has some leverage over policy, whether it exercises that leverage in a written agreement negotiated publicly or in Cabinet negotiations behind closed doors.

Join the conversation

15 Comments sorted by

  1. Jack Arnold


    Thank you Tony Windsor for dragging New England screaming into the 21st century with the fibre to the wall NBN investment in regional development. Also for the $125 million funding for the New England Highway projects at the killer Bolivia Hill near Tenterfield and congestion easing along the goat track ignored by previous governments that Tony Abbott has signalled will be cut, cut cut.

    The Notional Party you have to celebrate a 19th century future has been actively betraying urban regional communities for the last 50 years and now is planning to farm CSG derricks rather than food across Australia's prime agricultural land.

    Independents get things done for their communities.

    1. Jonathan Adamson

      Brain Surgeon

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Only when they have a stick to wield. An independent where the governing party has a strong majority has no bargaining power whereas a local member of the governing party does have bargaining power. Thinking independent? Big Gamble.

    2. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Jonathan Adamson

      Given that it is almost certain that Abbott will win control of the lower house, and given that you think that only those in power have any influence, you must be suggesting that everyone vote for the Coalition.

    3. Jack Arnold


      In reply to Jonathan Adamson

      Uhm Jonathan ... when your choice is a local business person committed to alternative energy production and community welfare, or, former Senator Bumbling Joke from the Notional Party who has proposed to move his Electoral Office from Tamworth to Tenterfield, some 230km closer to his Queensland residence, then voting any other way is the 'big gamble'.

      As Shadow Minister for Regional Development, Local Government & Water, three portfolios for three streams of super instalments, the CSG industry planning process will have a sympathetic ear from the proprietor of about 1,000ha of CSG lease land in the Pilliga Scrub.

    4. cam_ll

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Jonathan Adamson

      sorry, what's the gamble?

      you vote independent you have a slim chance that your local member will represent your views to parliament
      you vote with the sitting party and you have a slim chance your local member will represent your views to the party room

      i know which one i would prefer..

    5. Jack Arnold


      In reply to cam_ll

      HI Cam, we certainly had excellent representation from Tony Windsor. Now we look like having former Queensland Senator Bumbling Joke betraying urban regional communities by likely abusing his portfolio responsibilities of 'Liberal' Shadow Regional Development, Local Government and Water.

      Then AFR announced that the New England Highway projects, upgrading the killer Bolivia Hill ($80 million) and decongesting the lower Hunter NEH ($45 million), will be cut for Liberal austerity reasons.

      Just watch the Notional Party you have when you don't want representation spin that into justification for Bumbling Joke moving his office 330km closer to his Queensland principal residence, from Tamworth to Tenterfield.

  2. Brenton Prosser

    Senior Research Fellow in Policy, Sociology and Public Health at University of Canberra

    It's refreshing to have a piece based on the internal realities of politics rather than pre-Election spin. Thanks Linda.

    What it suggests to me is that it is far easier for the public to see the leverage exerted on governments by independents and minority parties, than it is to see the influence of interests within governments (both Labor and Coalition).

    Given that we have minority government whenever the Coalition is in power and that the government has been in minority in all but 3 of the last 30 years in the Senate - isn't it time we dropped the hype about a 'hung' parliament and just referred to it as 'the' parliament?

  3. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    It should also be remembered that the Greens - that party most despised by the Liberals as being a 'fringe' party etc, significantly outpolled the Nationals at the last election, and will do so again this time around.

    It is the Nationals which are a fringe party in this country - one which gains a disproportionate share of seats and influence which far outweighs their popular support.

  4. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Really great article, I am more afraid of any one party winning a majority than anything else.

    Mixed Member Proportional Voting please

  5. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    The good thing with the minority government under Gillard is that there was lots of debate within the parliament - we could see democracy working.

    The Coalition debates behind closed doors, and especially if Abbott gains control of the senate, legislation will just be rubber stamped by parliament.

    Protect the senate - vote 1 Green.

    (And be careful of the Sex Party and Wikileaks as they preference some right wing parties above the Greens.)

    1. Peter Evans


      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Couldn't agree more. I found the so called instability refreshing as ideas were challenged and to be implemented policies had to be thought through and well argued. Its too easy when one party or one group (the Coalition) has control of the lower house for bills to be presented and walked through the process. As with many things in life there are better outcomes when we are challenged to question and defend our ideas rather than just follow the same old patterns. Of course you need good will on both sides and this was mostly present between the Government and the independents

  6. Doug Hutcheson


    "The two parties usually go into an election campaign with a single voice but this does not detract from the fact that they have different policy emphases." The biggest nightmare would be if the Libs gained a majority in both houses, enabling them to rule unfettered by ties to the Nats. A purely Liberal regime would become a massive wrecking ball, pursuing policies in harmony with their Tea Party mates in the USA. I hope we will not hand Australia on a platter to Abbott tomorrow.

  7. John Kelmar

    Small Business Consultant

    A far better way to govern Australia is for the people to vote for the person who they believe will be the best person for each Ministerial portfolio, provided they are qualified for the position. Then when all the Ministers are elected, they must all work together to MAKE AUSTRALIA BETTER, no matter what party they belong to.

    This will stop the idiotic bickering we currently have in Parliament, and make politicians focus more strongly on positive attributes supportive of each other and the Australian people.

  8. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Pertinent points - and of course there are several minority state govts or hung parlts at the moment - Victoria for example, where a blue blood Liberal Premier was removed with minimal outcry from the hounds of the media.

    Abbott has said that the Dept of Trade will be removed from the Foreign Minister's portfolio - ie won't be under J Bishop's authority. Why? So that it can go to a Nat or a Lib Free Trader? Time will tell , but perhaps it's that they think that trade is more suitable for a bloke to manage ???