Wednesday, September 8, 2010
YESTERDAY was the end of the beginning. We now have a minority government, and a set of agreements about reforms it will make. The new ministry and those supporting it now face the long haul: making it work.
We have had many minority governments, and we have learnt a few things about them. First, and most important, they usually work. Second, they can take tough decisions. But third, like all relationships, to work and to take tough decisions, they require self-discipline and focus from both sides.
When that doesn't happen, the idealistic agreements gradually erode, the old ways return, and governments can fall.
But all Australian states have had minority governments in recent years. Except in Tasmania, all have seen out their terms and most have left lasting reforms.
Canberra itself has had nothing but minority government since 1989. South Australia has had minority governments for most of that time. We had one in Victoria from 1999 to 2002, which permanently changed the state to make government more accountable. There are now minority governments in Western Australia, Tasmania, the ACT, the Northern Territory and Federal Parliament.
Let's drop the idea that this is something extraordinary and unworkable. It's actually very ordinary and workable if all players want it to work.
The agreements Labor has signed with the Greens and independents simply guarantee supply and confidence to the new government. They do not assure that any particular legislation will be passed. That will have to be negotiated bill by bill.
Labor will need four votes from the six crossbenchers to pass any legislation opposed by the Coalition. Each side will have 72 members in the 150-seat House of Representatives, with four independents, one Green and one West Australian National.
From July 1 next year, Labor will also need the support of the Greens in the Senate to pass any legislation opposed by the Coalition. Labor will have 31 of the 76 senators, the Greens nine, the Coalition 34, with new DLP senator-elect John Madigan and South Australian independent Nick Xenophon on the crossbenches but without power.
It won't be easy. In 1999, like Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott now, Russell Savage and Craig Ingram were country independents who supported Labor. Today they have mixed feelings about it. Mr Savage feels bitter disappointment, Mr Ingram is more philosophical.
Their agreement with Labor leader Steve Bracks brought about major reforms: restoring the independence of the Auditor-General, fixed four-year terms, reform of Parliament, increased spending for regional Victoria and, most importantly, reform of the Legislative Council to elect members by proportional representation.
That has deprived the government of a majority, and turned the council into a real parliamentary check on the power of governments.
Ingram, still the MP for Gippsland East, feels proud of what they achieved. "Most of the outstanding reforms of Parliament came as the result of minority governments," he says. "We got a significant change of direction in spending towards the regions. The most positive thing about this federal election is that there will be much greater focus on regional Australia."
Ingram won the restoration of passenger trains to Bairnsdale, increased water allocations to the Snowy River and the Gippsland Lakes, and a pledge to rule out a dam on the Mitchell River.
Savage was less fortunate. He speaks bitterly about betrayal as Labor broke its promises to him. Passenger trains never came back to Mildura. Its hospital remained in private hands, and then Labor chose the Mallee for a toxic dump, sealing his defeat in 2006.
He has some pithy advice for Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott. "Don't trust anything they say get them to put it in writing," he says. "Watch your back all the time from both sides."
HOW THE NEW HOUSE WILL LOOK
WA NATIONAL 1
THE NEW SENATE
TOTAL SEATS 76
IND (XENOPHON) 1