Twenty years since Cunningham tipped out Goss

21 February 2016


Hung parliaments commonly put pressure on crossbench politicians who hold the balance of power in them.  Advances in technology and media make such pressure a lot stronger today than generations ago.  With politicians under scrutiny more than before, and their moves watched everywhere, any kind of slip or mishap is invariably promoted in the media, with the prospect of any resignation or departure causing governments to change outside usual election times.

Australians don’t need reminding of what hung parliaments can be like.  In August 2010, they cast their votes in a Federal election which produced a hung result, with neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition winning enough parliamentary seats to govern the country without the support of some crossbenchers.  Labor got the necessary crossbench support, and the Coalition stopped at virtually nothing to pressure the crossbenchers to tip Labor out, but Labor was able to hang on for what seemed like three long years, until the Coalition unsurprisingly won the next election, in 2013.

When parliaments are hung, it’s possible for governments to be tipped out of office well outside election times, and they’ve been tipped out in a few instances in history.  But the most recent of these instances in Australian history goes back twenty years from now – to February 1996.  Since then, hung parliaments have seen crossbench politicians support governments until election time, even if elections have been held earlier than expected.

Back in February 1996, the Queensland Parliament went into a hung state following a by-election in the Townsville area.  Before the by-election, Labor had been governing in Queensland with a majority of a single seat.  The by-election was in a Labor-held seat called Mundingburra.  It was watched closely because of Labor’s tiny parliamentary majority, and if Labor lost the by-election, it would lose its majority.  And that was what happened – Labor lost Mundingburra to the Coalition, meaning that both Labor and the Coalition held the same number of seats.

In the year before the by-election, Labor had unexpectedly come close to losing office after less than six years there.  Wayne Goss had led Labor to its first election win in Queensland in decades back in 1989, and as Queensland Premier he turned out to be very popular.  But after winning another election comfortably in 1992, the Goss Labor Government saw a surprise swing against it in an election in 1995, and its comfortable majority was virtually wiped out.

Out of a possible eighty-nine seats in the Queensland Parliament, Labor won forty-five and the Coalition won forty-three.  The other MP there was an Independent, Liz Cunningham, who won the rural seat of Gladstone from Labor in that 1995 election.

Then came the by-election in Labor-held Mundingburra in February 1996.  Labor lost this by-election to the Coalition, and both sides ended up with forty-four seats each.  All of a sudden, the balance of power lay with the sole Independent MP Cunningham.

Despite holding a Labor-leaning seat, Cunningham decided to give her support to the Coalition.  Therefore the Goss Government was tipped out of office, and the Coalition took office with Rob Borbidge as the new Premier.  But Labor wasn’t out of power for long.

Two years after being tipped out, Labor scraped home to win an election in 1998, albeit with support from another Independent, Peter Wellington, who won a seat from the Coalition in that 1998 election.  After a tentative start, Labor won a massive majority at the next election, in 2001, and governed continuously until 2012.  Meanwhile, Cunningham might’ve been seen as betraying her Labor-leaning constituents in Gladstone when she put the Coalition into office, but she won her seat again in 1998, and would hold it until she retired in 2015.

Because of the span of twenty years since Cunningham tipped out Goss, lots of people would probably be shocked at the thought of crossbenchers tipping governments out of office outside election time.  But this sort of thing has happened before, and will happen again.  The thought of governments changing outside election time would shock many.



Ruddock shown the exit door for no good reason

15 February 2016


The Liberals have pushed Philip Ruddock out of Federal Parliament.  I don’t believe otherwise.  Ruddock himself might deny it, but there’s too much evidence to suggest that he’s been pushed into retiring from politics.

It’s by no means uncommon for MPs to call time on their political careers, at their own free will, when elections aren’t far away.  But I doubt that this has been the case with Ruddock, who was elected to Parliament before I was even born.

With the next Federal election long predicted to be happening during this year, my feeling is that if Ruddock really had felt like retiring, he’d have announced his retirement a least a year ago.  That said, the timing of his announcement of retirement, likely to be months out from the election, probably shouldn’t be an issue in itself.  But over recent months there’s been speculation that if some Liberal MPs, especially older ones, didn’t choose to retire, they’d face challenges to their preselection, meaning their positions as Liberal candidates for elections.  And Ruddock’s been among those Liberals thought to be under the gun.  When you couple this speculation of a push against older Liberals with the timing of Ruddock’s retirement announcement, his retirement doesn’t look to be on his terms.

While no MP stays around forever, Ruddock looks to have been shown the exit door from Parliament, and for no good reason.  It’s true that he’s now aged in his seventies, but age alone shouldn’t be an excuse to show any MP the door.  Given the length of service given by Ruddock to the Liberal Party, and the regard in which many Liberals hold many things that he’s done throughout his service, he really deserved to be free to depart at a time of his choosing.

Ruddock has been in Parliament for more than forty-two years.  He was elected to the seat of Parramatta, in western Sydney, at a by-election in 1973.  In 1977 he switched to a new seat nearby, called Dundas, and he held it until 1993, when it was abolished.  From there he switched to the seat of Berowra, in northern Sydney, where he’s been ever since.

When the Liberal-National Coalition won office in 1996, after thirteen years out of office, Ruddock became Immigration Minister, and he held that post for a number of years.  It was during his time there, in 2001, that immigration suddenly became a hot political issue, particularly the question of people trying to sail to Australia on leaky boats from countries to the north, often after paying people smugglers to put them on boats, and how the Coalition sought to stop the arrival of these “boat people”.  A quietly-spoken person, Ruddock himself wasn’t overly vocal during the intense debate over this issue, but he was firm in arguing the Coalition Government’s case.  Indeed when a Federal election came later that year, Ruddock drew massive applause from the Coalition’s faithful supporters during Coalition campaigning when Prime Minister John Howard mentioned him – the cheers among the Coalition faithful were arguably as great for Ruddock as they were for Howard.  Amid this environment came a memorable “we will decide who comes to this country” declaration from Howard, with people remembering it, regardless of whether they agreed or not.

Because the Coalition’s policies succeeded in stopping the arrival of boat people, many Liberals came to hold Ruddock in high regard.  After the Coalition lost office to the Labor Party in 2007, Labor reversed the Coalition’s policies, and boat people started coming again, so it was unsurprising that the Coalition restored its policies when it returned to office in 2013, with boat arrivals subsequently stopping again.  Of course, the immigration debate in 2001 upset lots of people around the country, and some Liberal MPs felt that the Coalition was too harsh – this is why I deliberately say that “many” Liberals, rather than all, regard Ruddock highly.

Having been in Parliament for so long, Ruddock has seen the Coalition’s fortunes change over time.  In late 1972, a year before Ruddock’s arrival, the Coalition parties lost office for the first time in decades, and they seemed to regard their loss as illegitimate.  Ruddock therefore would’ve watched them fight ruthlessly to return to office in 1975, seem to dither until losing office in 1983, go through years of interal warfare over leadership, lose another four elections, return to office in 1996, survive a few close elections, lose office in 2007 after appearing stale, almost win in 2010, and fight ruthlessly until returning to office in 2013.  He’d have also watched his political opponents go through highs and lows, and watched Australia go through both economic boom times and recessions.

I dare say that Ruddock has many interesting stories to tell about events in Parliament during his time there, which public mightn’t already know.  He might’ve seen coming what political events might’ve surprised us all when they happened.  Hopefully he’ll have passed on his wealth of knowledge and insight for the Liberals in particular to remember.

Sadly the wrong reasoning looks to have seen Ruddock depart.  Of course, many people will miss him, and many will be glad to see the back of him.  But he really deserved to depart on his terms after almost forty-three years in Parliament.  Few like him last as long as that.