Panicking over Minority Government: Australia’s Hung Parliament

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 31.08.2010

The use of the term 'hung parliament' says it all. States using the Westminster system regard it as a calamity and undeserved form of punishment. Suddenly, a major party with an insufficient number of votes to govern in their own right needs the support of minor parties and independents. Negotiations are required. An understanding has to be reached with those across and indeed aside from the aisle. It's a major party's worst nightmare, a fate worse than losing an election.

A sense of panic has gripped the Australian political establishment, unfamiliar with the workings of minority government. A hung parliament, the first since 1940, has precipitated a sense of concern that is causing the major parties not merely a sense of headache, but a sense of woe. The Liberal-National coalition has netted 72 seats, severely trimming the incumbent Labor government's majority which seemed, till nine months ago, unassailable. Both major political groupings are now on 72. The independents have, by virtue of this arrangement, the balance of power.

A few balmy ideas have been tossed about the political arena. Some have argued that it might be appropriate to make the Australian populace go back to the polls. This is merely another symptom of that school of thought, 'We are democratic, but let us direct the way we are going to be democratic.' Why trust the electorate anyway? Such nonsense surely has to stop. Politics is the art of the possible, not a vocation of paralysis. The independents are not holding the system to ransom. They are merely assessing options in the context of the power the system has given them. An addled mind is suitable punishment, but there is nothing to suggest that it still can't work.

The Westminster system has much to answer for. For one thing, the virtues of the Republican system have been demonstrated again, suggesting that Australians might like to cast an eye over the Pacific (again) for a helping hand. A President, separately elected by the people, and independent of a scrutinising Parliament, assures a degree of functioning stability the Westminster system does not. It has also demonstrated the paltry electoral system that insists that lower houses have to be unequally represented, crushing in their adversarial dominance. Had the Greens been genuinely represented in the lower house after this election, we would have had a formidable sixteen or seventeen members. We instead only have one - the first Green voted to the Australian lower house in its history. Proportional representation is anathema to the Westminster followers, be they believers in representational or proportional voting.

The outcome is still in the balance, and the major parties will simply have to do something that history has denied them: an opportunity to mature into forces of consensus. Given the appalling nature of an election campaign waged more on principles of branding than principles of policy, the situation is richly deserved. Neither major party deserved to win - one with an extreme leader (or 'Mad Monk' Abbott) insisting on turning back the clock on policy; the other determined to commit electoral suicide and failing in even doing that.

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