22 May 2016
The Labor Party seems more capable than the Coalition parties in forming minority governments with crossbench support. This is the conclusion that I draw from looking back over the political scene going back a few decades.
Few Australians need reminding of how Labor managed to obtain crossbench support after a Federal election in 2010 produced a deadlocked result. Many people hated it, and many more didn’t mind it. At state and territory level, Labor currently governs in three states and in the Australian Capital Territory, and three of those four Labor governments have been with minority status at one time or another.
The ACT Labor Government has survived the longest of the current governments, having been elected in 2001. Next in line is South Australia, where Labor has governed since 2002. Both governments initially began life with the support of crossbench MPs, and later governed in their own right after clear election wins, before losing their majority status at later elections and needing crossbench support again. Only in Victoria does Labor govern in its own right, after winning office in 2014, while in early 2015 Labor came to office in Queensland with crossbench support. I note with interest that in Victoria, Labor was out of office for only one term, from 2010 to 2014, and its previous stint in office had begun in 1999 with crossbench support, before it won an election in its own right in 2002.
The last of the current Labor governments to take power, in Queensland, began early last year with crossbench support. Its story is similar to that in Victoria. Labor had been out of office in Queensland for only one term, from 2012 to last year, and its previous stint in office had begun in 1998 with crossbench support.
It’s worth noting that Labor had memorable leaders amongst these governments. How many people that Peter Beattie in Queensland, Steve Bracks in Victoria, Jon Stanhope in the ACT, and Mike Rann in SA all initially governed with crossbench support before gaining majorities? Labor wouldn’t have been as successful in winning without them.
Queensland nowadays has Labor, under the leadership of Annastacia Palaszczuk, in a similar position to 1998, when it took power under Beattie. He initially became Premier when the support of one Independent was enough for Labor to take power. Months later, Labor won a by-election for a former crossbencher’s seat, and was able to govern in its own right, with a one-seat majority. But a major scandal relating to electoral fraud and rorting cost Labor its majority, with three Labor MPs ending up on the crossbench – one of those MPs was Jim Elder, who’d been Deputy Premier under Beattie. Despite this major scandal surrounding Labor, the Coalition was in disarray for various reasons, one of which was the popularity of controversial political figure Pauline Hanson, and Beattie led Labor to a massive election win in 2001. His majority didn’t shrink by much at later elections, and after he retired, new Premier Anna Bligh was able to win an election in 2009 with relative ease, despite growing dissatisfaction with Labor among voters.
By 2012, voters were so angry with Labor that they threw Labor out of office in a huge way, reducing Labor to just seven seats – the size of a netball team – at an election in the first part of that year. But this anger went the other way at the next election, in 2015, and under the leadership of Palaszcuk, who’d succeeded Bligh after that 2012 rout, Labor was able to take power again, with the support of one Independent.
When you compare the path of governing that Beattie took and the path that Palaszczuk has taken, you could argue that shades of Beattie loom for Palaszczuk. Both originally took power with the support of an Independent, and later needed more crossbench support. Indeed the Independent who supported Beattie back in 1998 was Peter Wellington, who now supports Palaszczuk. And just as various issues saw some Labor MPs go to the crossbench in Beattie’s early years, two Labor MPs have gone to the crossbench since Palaszcuk took power. Those Labor MPs are Billy Gordon and Rob Pyne, who are both in Queensland’s far north.
Time will tell whether Palaszcuk governs with them. She may emulate Beattie in governing against the odds, whatever the result.