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.



Independent’s betrayal long forgiven

23 January 2015

Independents betraying their constituencies – times beyond counting would people have heard this sort of characterisation attributed to Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, for three years beyond September 2010.  Hitherto most people, except within their constituencies and perhaps neighbouring ones, wouldn’t have heard of these two men, both Independent MPs from regional New South Wales.  They hit the headlines in late August 2010, when Australians failed to elect a majority government for the first time in decades, leaving these two men among several MPs with the power to decide on who’d govern the country.

Probably few people thought that Oakeshott and Windsor, both one-time members of the National Party, would support the Labor Party in a hung parliament.  Besides being ex-Nationals, both represented areas where voters were more likely to prefer the Nationals to Labor.  But more than a fortnight after the election, which was so late in August that the counting of votes stretched into September, the two ex-Nationals ultimately decided to give Labor the necessary support to form government.  And the vitriol, especially from conservative commentators brooding over Labor’s narrow escape from defeat, began at once and went on for three years, until both Oakeshott and Windsor retired from politics in 2013.

You might think that the actions in 2010 of Oakeshott and Windsor, in arguably going against the wishes of their constituencies and allowing Labor to govern, were unprecedented in Australian political history.  But you’d be wrong.

Over a decade earlier, during the 1990s, Independents in the State Parliament of Queensland did the same thing as Oakeshott and Windsor, albeit on separate occasions.  The first of these Independents was Liz Cunningham of Gladstone, normally a Labor-leaning region.  She entered Parliament in 1995, at an election which the Goss Labor Government almost lost, against expectations.  Wayne Goss had been very popular as Queensland Premier since 1989, but a surprise against Labor left Goss with a one-seat majority.  The following year, when Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election and was left deadlocked with the Coalition on forty-four seats apiece, the new balance-of-power MP Cunningham arguably went against the wishes of her constituents and gave her support to the Coalition, thereby tipping Goss and Labor out of office.

Surely, in many people’s minds, Gladstone voters would revolt against Cunningham for her “betrayal” and throw her out at the next election, which ultimately came in 1998.  But they voted her back in.  And even at the election after that, in 2001, when Queensland voters swung back to Labor everywhere, Cunningham won Gladstone again.  Four elections on, she’s continued to hold her seat.  If she’d betrayed her constituents at first, clearly they’ve long forgiven her.

Now Cunningham is retiring at the next Queensland election, after nearly twenty years in Parliament.  I suspect that Gladstone voters will miss her.

As a footnote, in 1998 another Independent MP, Peter Wellington, did something similar to Cunningham.  Having won a seat on the Sunshine Coast from the Nationals in an election which produced a hung parliament, Wellington chose to give Labor support to take office.  Despite this betrayal, he’s held his State seat ever since.  Perhaps voters can forgive MPs for betraying them if they like what they see otherwise.