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Forget the horse trading and go back to the polls: Australia’s Hung Parliament

August 26, 2010

Forget the horse trading and go back to the polls: Australia’s Hung Parliament


There is one rule that is often overlooked when we consider parliamentary democracy and that is the rule of control. If a government is unable to control at least one house of parliament then it is game over. The government cannot function and we are left with policy paralysis. There is no point talking about the legitimacy to be in government if that legitimacy cannot be enforced with a simple vote. Nor is there any point of stating a vision for the future when at a moment’s notice it can be relegated to a vote of no confidence. Simply put, a government cannot function if it cannot control the lower house of parliament.


Yet is precisely the situation that appears to be developing after the Australian Federal Election on the 21st of August 2010. Nearly a week has gone and still we have no idea of who is going to be in charge of the government. Regardless of who wins the majority of seats a government looks as if it can only be formed if it is supported by 3 to 4 independents. At first glance this may seem like a fresh approach to breaking the duopoly of Liberal verses Labor government. However on closer examination it means that parliament can be held ransom to views of just a handful of independents. What this small group want might vary enormously and what they should be given may have no relation to what they can demand. For some it may look like a win for the little guy but for other it may look like a nation is being held to ransom by a tiny minority.


The very public horse trading has already begun with three of the independents posing 7 demands to both sides. Labor has provisionally agreed to all seven but Liberal has rejected at least one (access to treasury costings). This last point would also require a change to provisions of caretaker government mode. The negotiations are still continuing even though the final tally of votes has not been counted. One of the independents main points is the insistence that any government they support serves full term, meaning that they will be in a position of power for at least 3 years. It also could mean that the government is being held over a barrel for the next three years as newer and greater demands are made by the independents. Simply put, we do not know how many ‘pounds of flesh closest to the heart’ they want to extract. It could easily cease to be government by the will of a majority but government by the whim of a tiny minority. At any stage the government could easily fall at the next by-election or absentee. This is not a model for stability but rather one of either extreme experimental law making or legislative inaction.


It could still be weeks before we know the final count of votes and how many seats each of the major parties has. In that time we have little to gain by turning previously unheard of members of parliament into celebrity tyrants who wallowing in their sudden and unrepresentative rise to power. Instead we should be looking forward to 3 years of reasonable knowledge about what policies we will be facing in the future. For investment, foreign policy and defence this is essential. The uncertainty about where we are going and who is in charge will eventually hurt us a lot.


Elections may be painful but the alternative would far more painful for all. Bet that we return to the polls soon and find out who is really able to run this nation.


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