During the campaign, Labor and the Coalition understandably made strong pitches to win majority government in their own right, ruling out deals with minor parties or independents. In a way, this was a legitimate pre-election pitch from both sides attempting to win government alone.
But that was then. This is now: the electorate has, more than likely, delivered a minority government so we need to move on. The question is how to deliver the most effective, transparent and stable government given the 150 MPs elected.
The best way to do this is to have formal written agreements between the new prime minister and the independents and minor parties that can deliver government. As chief of staff to Greens leader Bob Brown in 2010, I was involved in negotiating one such agreement, from which the Labor party gained the assurance of support and supply and were able govern through a full term. In return, Gillard pursued a number of policy and process reforms including the establishment of a parliamentary budget office, action on climate change, parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, an investigation into the feasibility of high speed rail as well an increased role in the parliament for private member business.
Governor general Peter Cosgrove is charged with the constitutional responsibility of deciding who will form government in the House of Representatives. If prime minister Turnbull goes to him without written agreements, it will be harder for him to judge the best way forward. It is a recipe for uncertainty and confusion.
The governor general will make his decision based on whether the PM can provide assurances to form stable government and of course a written document will provide the most compelling case.
This does not mean individual MPs signing such an agreement would have to vote for all government legislation. In fact, the opposite is true. A written agreement could specifically say such MPs will vote on all future legislation according to its merits. This would provide both sides with a clear understanding of how things will work across the life of the parliament.
After all, the Coalition is itself a formal coalition between parties. The Liberal party does not win government in its own right and has written agreements with the National party, as it should. It has worked well to deliver stability and consistency.
Written agreements also provide transparency and accountability. Without them the public is left to wonder what secret or backroom arrangements might have been made.
And for business also such an arrangement would be better. We now have warnings that the minority parliament instability could be bad for the economy. It is in the interest of business to encourage strong formal agreements with the cross bench to ensure the clarity that will deliver the investment certainty that is needed.
The world is full of minority governments. There are 34 in Europe, six in the Americas, 12 in Africa, 18 in Asia and six in Oceania (if we include Australia). In those countries, written power-sharing agreements work best for the electorate, encouraging transparency and legislative focus.
The truth is minority governments can be stable and effective, but only with written agreements against which the parties can be held to account. The “no deals” mantra was an understandably powerful message before an election, but it is potentially a recipe for chaos in the new parliament.
Every other parliament in the world with minority government situations uses written agreements. Ever since humankind evolved from oral culture in the Mesolithic era, documents have been the way to record important information.
We know all too well that things said during the heat of an election campaign can hamstring the work or political success of a government once elected. This is a prime example. One of the risky talking points over the past weeks was the idea that there would be no written or formal deals after an election. But you would not buy a car or a house on a handshake. We should not expect the whole nation to be governed on a wink and a nod.
But to allow a sensible discussion of this new reality, we need to now cut our politicians some slack, allowing them some wriggle room from their pre-election statements and encourage them to work with, not against the new parliament that the voters have chosen.
Politics is how we sort out our collective differences via negotiation without having to resort to violence. Having a parliament where more of the negotiation is done out in the open would not only provide more stability but is more likely to engender the public’s trust as well.
Ben Oquist is Executive Director of the Australia Institute and was chief of staff to Bob Brown during the 2010 minority Gillard government