For all of the first 15 years after Federation in 1901, Australians elected Minority Governments. Nevertheless, the Parliament passed much of the essential legislation that created the fabric of Australian society today. The Age Pension is a prime example of this.
We should also note that for a crucial period during the Second World War, we had a minority government, but we still managed to win the war.
Most of the nations of Europe have had minority governments for as long as I can remember, with many of their voters never having experienced a majority government in their lifetime. You may retort that it was an inability to exercise decisive political power in so many governments that caused the current economic chaos in the European Community. This is an unlikely assumption as they all simply followed the worldwide mania for greed that majority governments failed to curb.
In fact, when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote the American Constitution, they did not have political parties in mind. They envisaged that Congress would consist of learned people who would make commonsense decisions after profound debate. Indeed, when they set-up the Electoral College with power to choose the President, they did not imagine that States would choose electors who were all bound to a particular candidate. They wanted the finest citizens in the land to be chosen to serve on the College so they could exercise great wisdom in choosing the very best leader who was available for this high office.
The Founding Fathers would be appalled if they discovered how the American President is elected today.
The same beliefs applied when democracy was founded in ancient Greece. No one imagined that Senators would bind together to dominate the decision-making process. Indeed, very few did in that era.
It is my firm belief that majority governments violate the very basic principles of democracy. Yet, here in Australia, many are obsessed with a hatred of minority government. We are so aggravated about it that the problem goes beyond the core issue.
Because a majority of voters don’t like Julia Gillard personally, we automatically associate minority government with her, whereas, if she was popular, minority government would become popular too.
It’s time for us to make a clear distinction between the two. So, let us take a coldly analytical view of the current minority government here in Australia.
The first thing that should be said is that it was strongly predicted to crash within three months, but has lasted three years. This, in itself, proves that a minority government can actually work in the stable democracy that we have here in Australia. During those three years, more than 300 pieces of legislation have been passed. You may have disapproved of every piece of the legislation, but the fact is that the Parliament was able to carry out its normal business as required by the Constitution.
Certainly, it will be remembered as a Parliament of great controversy, as several pieces of historic legislation were passed by a one-vote margin after bitter debate. However, they related to quite substantial matters such as mining, carbon, disability, education, broadband, etc, and their impact on the nation will be debated for many years to come. No-one can fairly say that this minority government was one of no consequence.
Independents and the Greens have exercised an enormous influence over every Bill. This would seem to be undemocratic, as they represent only a small percentage of voters, but Australia has survived throughout my lifetime with its Senate being controlled by similar minority groups. We find this disturbing because such minority power has not occurred in the House of Representatives since World War II. But, it still represents democracy in action.
The Prime Minister has often appeared to be a hostage of those minorities. This was very true with regard to the Carbon Tax, when she reneged on an election promise so she could bring the Greens into her minority government. The alternative that she faced was to lose power, and we all know that power is everything in politics. No politician gives it up easily.
Then, we had the Kevin Rudd sideshow which was constantly besmirching the Government. At one point, it became a highly embarrassing laughing stock, but I don’t see how Gillard could have avoided this. The ALP had to cleanse itself of Rudd, as he believed that he been ordained by God to be Prime Minister forever, and it was necessary for him to find out that God had changed his mind about that.
Indeed, if his chat with God was a frank one, he would have found that the Almighty was not impressed by his betrayal of Simon Crean and other people who thought they were mates. Christians just don’t do this to their friends.
Gillard has been able to keep her government together largely because of the personal unpopularity of the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. He really should have brought her down at least two years ago, but failed to do so, despite fighting relentlessly. No-one can criticise him for lack of effort, but many of his own supporters are disappointed that he failed to destroy the Prime Minister.
So, it has come down to this unavoidable fact. We have been through the most extraordinary three years of my political life. Many voters have disliked the spectacle and felt insecure because of it. They want it to end, but now accept they won’t get this opportunity until September, when it can be determined by normal processes at the ballot box.
But, blame our political leaders in all Parties, not the validity of a minority government. It is an accepted exercise in democracy that is practised in most nations around the world.
I regard it as vital to the credibility of democracy that no government should be able to ride roughshod over a Parliament. They must be required to negotiate with their opposition for true democracy to work.
I was appalled when Rudd had a small group of four people running his government, totally ignoring Cabinet, Caucus and Parliament. It snubbed the nose of the vital issue of accountability.
A prime example of a pragmatic implementation of democracy can be discovered and enjoyed by reading Robert Caro’s great book Passage of Power, which recounts the incredible political saga of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1963. During Kennedy’s short stay in the White House, he managed only to get a few Bills through Congress, and none of them were significant. Conservatives from both the Republican and Democratic Parties ganged-up on him consistently and either voted down or stalled his legislation. When he was gunned down in Dallas, the nation was on the brink of emotional and political collapse.
Lyndon Johnson, who had declared as a schoolboy in Texas that one day he would be President, strode into the vacuum and took command, holding the unshakeable belief that his destiny had been fulfilled. He used his enormous political savvy and awesome negotiating skills to get all of Kennedy’s legislation through the House of Representatives and Senate, particularly the historic Civil Rights Bill and its associated Voting Bill, for which Martin Luther King had fought so bravely and purposefully.
Johnson faced defeat in the Congress day after day, but kept pulling his opponents back from the brink and negotiating his way past every obstacle. Some cynics tried to condemn his efforts by saying that the legislation was a watered down compromise. But, the fact is that none of it was. Each final draft looked like a new Bill because Johnson incorporated in it something of the views of all the major elements of American Society. He showed that democracy can produce the will of the people, whereas a majority government slams legislation through and creates a situation where only one side wins and all the others are alienated.
It is unlikely to happen, but I will be quite at peace if Australia votes for another minority government in September, irrespective of who runs it. In the past three years, our Parliament (as distinct from the Government) has recreated the spirit that existed when the Constitution was written and negotiated in 1901.
Barton, Deakin and Fisher then laid out the framework for a democratic nation. They successfully embedded its fairness through a succession of minority governments who negotiated with opposing parties by using goodwill and commonsense, totally unlike the shameful bitterness of today. In fact, most of it was agreed upon in the gentlemanly surroundings of the Members Bar at the Melbourne Club.
My hope is that many Independents will be elected in September, and that they will act as responsibly as Tony Windsor has done for the past three years. With voters having little respect for any of major political parties or their leaders, there is a real chance that some good quality Independents will get up, especially as most voters will think that there is no possibility of there being a hung Parliament again.
They may wisely decide that a few more Independents will enhance the Parliament. This will be a correct assumption.