IT IS MORE than a little strange that the prospect of forming a Government from a Parliament where no single party controls a majority of seats seems to cause widespread alarm in Tasmania.
Minority Government is scarcely a novelty in many democracies in Europe. Even more importantly for Tasmania, the Westminster conventions that are presumed to keep a Government accountable to, and responsible to, the Parliament all derive from a time when Governments did not enjoy the security of a disciplined party majority.
Yet, two party control of the political agenda has become firmly established across Tasmania and, indeed Australia, as a putative ideal of the Westminster system. As a result, today, many of the democratic virtues of the Westminster system have been transferred to political parties.
When there are objections in the media that Ministers are not compelled to account for their actions, it is merely a shorthand code for saying the Parliament does not have the capacity to over-ride the majority party’s control of the House of Assembly. Similarly, when members of the public complain they cannot get any politician to act on their complaints, they are in fact saying that party discipline is too tight to allow outside opinions onto the political agenda.
There is much more that could be said about the misconceptions surrounding minority Government but this brief article addresses one issue currently abroad regarding pledges by some politicians not to serve in a minority Government.
There is a rather cute irony in that some of the same politicians have argued that instructing an MHA what he might say to a parliamentary committee is a breach of privilege yet, without embarrassment, turning to the public and instructing the electors on the only votes that they, the politicians, will allow to be counted.
Actually, the promise not to form a minority Government or to accept a cross bench arrangement to govern if the party does not have a majority of its own is really part of a two-step electoral dance.
The second step in this dance is rather more like a game of “passing the parcel” than actually a waltz or fox trot.
The current step is nothing more than a pre-campaign (not long to become the campaign) posturing of the two major parties trying to bluff and counter-bluff the electors into voting for them as the only path to “stable” (i.e. majority) Government.
The promises are just so much electioneering at this stage.
This is not to say that the promises are not meant — they may well be but they are still only pledges. They only come into play after the election.
While not really binding, there is a question of the prudence of making such promises without a specific electoral result actually on the tally room board. If an acceptable independent were elected, perhaps as the Liberals found with Kevin Lyons in 1969, the current promises could prove unnecessarily embarrassing.
The second step in this dance is rather more like a game of “passing the parcel” than actually a waltz or fox trot. Contrary to some claims around town, only the party out of power, currently the Liberals (the Greens have not made such a pledge) can make the promise and stick to it.
The reason is this:
We live in a constitutional monarchy. This has meant that the Governor should act on the advice of Ministers drawn from the Parliament. However, Ministers enjoy their executive authority under commissions bestowed by the Crown (the Governor). The circularity of this arrangement is something of a trap when a governing party loses its majority at an election.
Provoke an unnecessary constitutional crisis
The Premier’s commission is the “parcel” since he/she is the Governor’s first adviser. When the electoral music stops and the votes are counted, if the party holding the parcel loses its majority, it cannot merely drop the parcel because it said it would. The Governor needs to act on advice and that places an obligation of the governing party’s leader to offer advice right up to the point that a new premier can be found to accept the commission to govern.
The Opposition can refuse to accept the parcel if it does not have a majority but doing so forces the Government to continue to hold the parcel even if it does not wish to do so, having lost its majority. Should it try, the Government would provoke an unnecessary constitutional crisis, for which it would have to answer at any subsequent election.
This is not to say that a Governor cannot exercise some discretion in such uncertain circumstances. There are some very rare and unusual options that a Governor might consider but the one that has occurred elsewhere is the appointment of a “caretaker” Premier who might exercise minimal executive powers in the event of a deadlock pending new elections.
However, this is highly controversial and, in Tasmania’s case, despite numerous cases of non-majoritarian Government, it has never occurred.
Richard Herr is Associate Professor, School of Government, University of Tasmania