What Westminster can learn from minority government in Australia

It was a novelty when Conservative leader David Cameron had to enlist Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s support to govern, but Britons may have to get used to minority government. EPA/Andy Rain

The UK is poised to enter minority government (again). This time it could well be with a hung parliament.

According to leading scholars on UK polling, this is not the result of de-alignment, it is the result of electoral re-alignment. In other words, it is not that the Brits are turning off to political or policy issues. It is because they are turning away from major party politics.

Another term of minority government would confirm the breaking of the British political mould.

Minority government is nothing new in other Commonwealth nations, such as Australia. Australia has had governments with a minority of members in one of its two houses for almost all of the last 30 years.

So what can Westminster learn from Australia about making minority government work?

Five elements of successful minority government

In my book with Richard Denniss, Minority Policy, we interviewed ten former Australian MPs from across the political spectrum about minority government. Their responses provide a guide on how prime ministers, minor parties and independents have worked together over the last three decades to provide stable (if not uneventful) government in Australia.

The former MPs identified five general features of successful minority government:

  1. Relationships – by far the strongest theme was the importance of respectful and trusting relationships (between parties and just as importantly between individual MPs).

  2. Negotiation – to be successful in minority government, leaders need to take a transactional approach and genuinely seek consensus (in a hung parliament the job of prime minister usually goes to the leader who inspires most confidence in this area).

  3. Information – all MPs agreed that information must be shared clearly, regularly and openly (trying to tactically withhold or misrepresent information just created resentment and opposition on the crossbench or the backbench).

  4. Consistency – MPs on all sides need to keep their word and hold to their policy positions (if crossbenchers “backflip” it undermines their credibility, while if governments abandon commitments to crossbenchers it undermines their capacity to negotiate future support).

  5. Mandate – all the MPs had no problem with minor party or independent MPs representing the interests of those who elected them – even if it frustrated a government (where there were concerns these involved the current influence of unrepresentative micro-parties in the Senate).

As these MPs looked back on their experiences of minority government, they saw varied performances by prime ministers, but in time they saw them all coming around to these five principles. This is why the last three decades of Australian politics are generally seen as stable and functional; governments are generally remembered for their policy achievements.

Particular lessons of the Gillard experience

The likelihood of the UK having a hung parliament after the May 7 general election also points to a specific case, namely the hung parliament under the prime ministership of Julia Gillard between 2010 and 2013. This is a particularly useful case study because the Australian confidence and supply arrangements will (in all likelihood) most closely align with the arrangements adopted by the UK parliament.

In the Australian case, the Labor government did not have majority in either house and had to negotiate with crossbenchers in both. This was a tumultuous three years. Gillard struggled with perceptions of illegitimacy and ultimately lost the top job.

That said, in these three years, more legislation was passed than in the last three years of majority government under John Howard. Much of this involved major legislative packages.

Most importantly, the events under Labor highlight two things. First, hung parliaments are able to run full term. Thanks to the new fixed terms in UK politics, should there be a hung parliament, it too is likely to have to function full term.

Second, despite significant legislative success, a government can still be dogged by perceptions of illegitimacy.

Andrew MacIntosh and Richard Denniss (see Gillard Government, Chapter 11) address this second point by analysing the role of climate change policy within the hung parliament. They suggest that the cause of Labor’s perception problems was crossbenchers’ demands for action on climate change as part of securing their support to form government.

They argue that this led Gillard to break her well-publicised 2010 election promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Not only did this reinforce public perceptions that politicians conveniently break their promises, but it gave rise to a strong political and public campaign that branded the prime minister as “Juliar”.

Former independent MP Tony Windsor notes that Julia Gillard was hampered by her government’s own sense of weakness flowing from its lack of a majority. AAP/Alan Porritt

Another perspective on this second point was provided in an interview with key crossbench MP Tony Windsor, for our book. He observed that the obsession with authority and power within the major parties led to a perception by Gillard (and Labor) that minority government reflected their own weakness.

Windsor noted that Gillard never effectively explained the conditions of her forming government, and that internal perceptions of political weakness led to her party’s reticence to explain the need for compromise and consensus. Hence, he argued, the public was left interpreting minority government through a majoritarian tradition and without a suitable lens for the conditions at hand.

In Windsor’s view, this created a situation where a lack of marketing of legislative success left far more scope for allegations of illegitimacy in media and online forums.

Managing the gaps between promises and perceptions

Meanwhile, writing with John Warhurst (See Gillard Government, Chapter 4), I offer yet another view on the hung parliament under Gillard. We argue that perceptions of the performance of the parliament suffered from being framed by both the loftiest and lowest of aspirations.

For those hoping that minority government would result in cultural change within parliament - including the removal of major party thinking and procedures in its operations - judged against these lofty ideals, the parliament largely failed. For those who foreshadowed transience, chaos and impotence - in both political and policy terms – against these low expectations, the parliament was a success.

What each of these interpretations shares is an emphasis on the gap between the expectations and the actualities of minority government (and particularly hung parliaments).

The theme of expectation gaps is adopted by Matthew Flinders’ work in defence of politics and democracy. He argues that despite widespread criticism, Western democracies deliver more than than most realise and make a positive difference in people’s daily lives.

However, a challenge Flinders identifies is the significant gaps between what politicians promise, what the public demands and what our parliaments can realistically deliver. In his consideration of the unrealistic expectations that result from this, we see a broader principle that applies just as much to minority government as it might to democracy. I’d suggest that unless the UK adopts a realistic and pragmatic understanding of minority government, it too may see minority government contributing to further declines in public confidence in democracy.

Right now minority government is regarded with some enthusiasm in the UK, but that may not last.

Not everyone in the UK is worried by the prospect of minority government - some welcome it.

The Australian experience should be both warning and encouragement to our friends in the UK. Most importantly, it highlights the inadequacy of analysing minority government through a fading majoritarian tradition, while it also feeds into debates about the future of our political systems and democracy.


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