Why minority government can be better for Australia

by Richard Denniss and Ebony Bennett
Prime Minister Julia Gillard listens during House of Representatives question time at Parliament House Canberra, Tuesday, June 18, 2013
AAP Image/Alan Porritt


Prime ministers need to stop “waving their mandates around” and start negotiating in both houses of parliament if they want to pass more legislation, says Richard Denniss.

In Australia, minority and coalition governments are often seen as some kind of aberration, but Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute, said that’s simply not the reality.

“Around the world, it’s very common. Around Australian states, it’s very common,” Denniss said, on the latest episode of Follow the Money.

“Even in federal parliament — obviously the Liberal Party and National Party are in a formal coalition, because without being in a coalition they wouldn’t have the numbers to form government ever.”

Minority governments aren’t just more common than many Australians think, but they can actually be more effective lawmakers, according to Denniss.

“The Gillard government was, from a legislative point of view, a very, very successful government.

“They passed a carbon price, they created the National Disability Insurance Scheme and increased taxes to pay for it, they created a royal commission into abuse within the churches.

“These were big, controversial things that other parliaments hadn’t managed to do.”

For Denniss, Gillard wasn’t effective despite being in a minority — being in minority was the reason her government was able to get these big reforms through.

“If you take the Constitution seriously and you realise that to actually make a law it’s not about your feelings or your mandate, it’s the ability to get a majority in both houses — then you understand why Gillard was so productive.

“In order for Julia Gillard’s government to pass a bill through the lower house, she needed to have a good hard chat with Tony Windsor and Adam Bandt and Rob Oakeshott.

“By doing the negotiation politely and privately, from the beginning and in good faith, they actually secured the passage of the bill.

“And guess what? Every bill that Adam Bandt voted for in the lower house, the Greens voted for when it got to the upper house.”

But despite this record of success, the major parties have often insisted that they’re not interested in minority government — most recently in Tasmania.

“It’s one of the things that the Labor Party and the Liberal Party can agree on.

“It’s in both their interests during an election to say, a vote for a major party is a good idea and a vote for an independent or a minor party is chaos.

But with voters trending away from both major parties, their leaders may have to get used to negotiating with a crossbench in both houses of parliament.

“There’s a good chance that independents can still pick up Liberal seats. I think there’s a good chance that the right independent can win Labor seats and possibly even Greens seats,” Denniss said.

“When Sophie Scamps can beat Jason Falinski in the seat of Mackeller with a swing of 15 or 16 per cent — I’m choosing my words carefully here — there’s no such thing as a safe seat anymore.

“It’s gone.”

Follow the Money is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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