23 December 2016
Varied have been the attitudes of major political parties in relation to minor players over time. I use the term “minor players” to describe Independents and minor parties, the latter of which are sometimes so small that they’re called “micro-parties”. There have been times when major parties have become comfortable with them, and times when they’ve been absolutely intolerant of them.
But when major parties become angry with minor players, or fearful of them, they try to make it as hard as possible for them to win seats at elections. Sometimes they succeed, but at other times their efforts fail, and more minor players emerge.
You’ve probably heard a quote which goes like this – “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It means that there’s nothing as bad as a woman who’s really angry. And when talking about a situation where lots of unhappy voters throw in their lot with minor political players, especially when they think that major political parties are trying to make seats harder to win at election time, I could play on that quote and say, “Hell hath no fury like minor players scorned”.
However, if you think that I’m talking about this year’s Federal election, and in particular the minor players in the Senate, of whom there were many before the election and then more after it, you’d be wrong.
I refer in fact to an instance, nearly two decades ago, when the major parties actually colluded to knock minor players out of the parliamentary arena, in Tasmania.
Back in 1996, twenty years ago, the Tasmanian Parliament was in a balance-of-power situation, with governments needing crossbench support to pass laws, for the second time in just a few years. Previously the Labor Party had governed with crossbench support from 1989 to 1992, after which the Liberal Party governed in its own right for four years. But the Liberal Government lost its majority at an election in 1996, and ended up governing with crossbench support.
In those days the Greens held the balance of power in Tasmania. They’d emerged from debates about environmental issues, such as damming rivers and logging forests, over previous years. And they’d later become the most powerful of minor players in Australian politics for a period of time.
In the wake of that 1996 election, the notion of needing the support of crossbenchers to govern must’ve made both the Labor and Liberal parties frustrated, or possibly scared.
A few years later, the major parties voted to reduce the size of State Parliament, with the number of seats in the House of Assembly, where governments are formed, dropping from thirty-five seats to twenty-five. This number came into effect at an election in 1998.
The major parties presumably decided that reducing the size of Parliament was the only way to get rid of the Greens. And at the time, their apparent act of collusion succeeded, with the Greens reduced to a single seat in the House of Assembly. Labor ended up winning the election with fourteen seats, but one might suspect that the Liberals, who won ten seats, would’ve preferred to lose the election than end up having to get support from the Greens to govern again. At a footnote, the new Premier of Tasmania was Jim Bacon, who’d entered Parliament only two years earlier and become Labor leader not long before that 1998 election.
But the Greens gradually came back from this 1998 setback. At the next election, in 2002, they increased their number from one seat to four seats. They held their four seats when Tasmanians next voted, in 2006. And in 2010, they gained a fifth seat and ended up with the balance of power once more.
Although the Liberals went on to comfortably win the next election, in 2010, the ability of the Greens to come back after being ganged on shouldn’t be forgotten. They clearly embody issues that many Tasmanians want addressed, even if the major parties don’t want to talk about them.
Minor players can be regarded as embodying issues that major parties want to ignore, as long as enough voters care. Major parties may try to freeze them out, but they do so at their own peril, as history has shown.