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.