Should parties enter in coalitions or arrangements when they don’t win an outright majority?

Posted: July 12, 2013 in Political musings
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Treasurer Chris Bowen believes Labor shouldn't enter into formal agreements with other parties. We think he's wrong.

Treasurer Chris Bowen believes Labor shouldn’t enter into formal agreements with other parties. We think he’s wrong.

An esoteric discussion for pointy heads and political tragics?

Yeah, maybe. But it’s an issue that fundamentally affects us all.

In recent years we have seen the dice fall in particular patterns so that even in “first past the post”  electoral systems, individual parties have not been delivered government in their own right.

It is wise to discuss how we respond to that situation, certainly.

The Conservative Party in the UK fell short of an outright majority at the last election, and formed a Coalition (“fusion”, in the USA) government with the centrist Liberal Democrats.

It would be fair to say that it has been a stable, but fractious, marriage. And whilst it has not been enormously popular, so the problems it has been dealing with are massive and deep rooted.

The Labor Party in Australia fell short of a majority and struck a deal with a few independents and the Greens. Again, it has been a relatively stable, if deeply unpopular, deal.

And it could be argued that a “non majority”  Government is something of the norm in America, where it is rare for one party to hold the Presidency and both houses of Congress at the same time.

Now a senior Labor figure in Australia is arguing, in a new book and ahead of the soon-to-be-called election, that his party should reject future deals if they find themselves in that situation again. I think he’s being foolish, and I shall explain why.

It is reported that the new Federal Treasurer, Chris Bowen, has declared Labor should never again strike a deal with another party to secure office.

Earlier this year, the Greens declared that their agreement with Labor was effectively over, citing a string of government policies including its refusal to re-design the mining tax.

Coalition government - better than no government at all?

Coalition government – better than no government at all? Or continual elections? We think so.

Mr Bowen said:

“This is not a criticism of the decision to go into alliance with the Greens.

It is a reflection of my views, having been considered, that the Labor Party – when it puts a view to the Australian people and campaigns in an election campaign for office – that we should govern alone and that we should not enter into formal deals with other political parties.

My contribution to the debate is that the Labor Party stands best by its policies and that we have a lot to offer with our policies and we shouldn’t need the policies of the Greens.”

In our view, Bowen is wrong for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the conduct of the Parliament is a matter for the people, not the political parties who coalesce there. If the people deny any one party a majority, then the parties surely have a moral and constitutional duty to seek to create a workable Government based on some formal arrangement, such as a Coalition or something very like it.

The alternative is for a party to seek to govern with a minority and no formal agreement governing how it will manage the situation.

This is almost always a cue for imminent chaos. Although it is not unheard of for the largest party to seek support on so-called “confidence” measures, and leave the rest to the whim of the Parliament, this kind of arrangement means any individual piece of legislation can be defeated willy-nilly.

Whilst this is a reflection of the make up of the house as expressed by the will of the people, it is also very bad for the uncertainty it causes in the country.

Businesses and public organisations plan their futures according to what is in a party’s manifesto. If it is entirely unclear which bits of that manifesto may or may not come to pass, then sensible planning becomes virtually impossible. For this reason alone, it is surely better for the largest party in the house to seek a stable arrangement with other parties or individuals.

The other variation on this alternative, that’s to say seeking to govern without either a coalition agreement or some working arrangement on confidence, is a nightmare scenario.

The Government can be defeated without warning, on matters ranging from the trivial to centrally important, and forced back to the country. A series of inconclusive elections arising from such a scenario can (and often has) led countries to question the wisdom of their democratic arrangements altogether.

So whilst it may be unpleasant for politicians to hold their nose and enter into Coalitions with parties that do not, of course, share every jot and tittle of their own platform, it is better than uncertainty and inertia.

Some Coalitions – and this seems to depend as much on the personalities of the people involved as it does on the policies of the parties concerned – work very well. Most European countries, as a result of using some form of proportional representation, find themselves requiring coalitions to be formed as a matter of course. As it is so common, it seems to produce much less angst than it does in First Past The Post countries or those, like Australia, who use the exhaustive but not necessarily proportional Alternative Vote system.

Countries which often operate with coalition cabinets include: the Nordic countries, the Benelux countries, Austria, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Turkey, Israel, New Zealand, Kosovo, Pakistan, Kenya, India, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and Ukraine. Switzerland has been ruled by a coalition of the four strongest parties in parliament from 1959 to 2008, called the “Magic Formula”.

Instead of cleaving to the shibboleth of intellectual purity, Bowen would do better to consider that democratic government is nearly always government of compromise, and that steady, pragmatic and progressive change is change that is likely to stick, rather than be merely over-turned by an incoming government of the opposite persuasion, some way down the track. Bipartisanship (multi-partisanship?) isn’t a replacement for democracy – no one wants our system to be a contest of ideas that is so lacklustre as to be meaningless – but the goal of better understanding the agendas and opinions of others is a noble one, and one that would invariably result in better governance that garners wider popular support.

In Australia, at least, the public has almost entirely consistently, for example, returned a Parliament where those with a majority in the lower house (the House of Representatives) are not given a matching majority in the upper house (the Senate). When we do arrange for that to happen (as with the last Howard Government) we nearly always reverse the situation promptly.

Do you think this situation arises accidentally, Mr Bowen? Or merely because the electoral system is biased that way? Give us some credit. Any gathering of Australians will reveal a significant minority who vote one way for the lower house, and another for the upper, and do so very deliberately.

In short, we like governments to say what they mean, and to stick to their guns. We also like them to be somewhat hobbled.

Think about it.

Mr Bowen’s book, Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor, is being launched by News Ltd boss Kim Williams today in Sydney.



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