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Federal

Aug 5, 2013

Abbott's 'no minority govt' pledge could cost him his job

Tony Abbott says there's no way he'd lead a minority government -- even if he wins the most seats. ACIL Allen Consulting governance expert Stephen Bartos asks if that pledge is legally and ethically sound, and explores the ramifications.

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Tony Abbott

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said yesterday that “under no circumstances” would the Coalition enter into a minority government if the federal election delivers a hung Parliament.

While there are still five weeks of campaigning left, opinion polls suggest a hung Parliament is a possibility — even though it is not the outcome Abbott might wish for.

For the purposes of defining a hung Parliament, the Senate is irrelevant. For most of Australia’s history, governments have not had a majority in the Senate. What matters is the lower house.

There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives, the chamber in which government is formed. If Labor and the Coalition win 74 seats each and the balance is held by two independents — or any of the many other permutations which would see two or more independents with the balance of power — then Abbott’s resolve will be tested. So does he have the right to refuse to even attempt to form government?

The Australian constitution says little about government, and does not even mention the office of prime minister. In formal terms (section 61) executive power is vested in the Queen and her representative the governor-general. In practice however this power is delegated to the party with a majority in the House of Representatives.

By far the most common election outcome in Australia has been that a major party wins a clear majority of seats. The number of votes in total does not matter, what counts is the seats — the reason why the major parties concentrate on marginal electorates. After the election result is known, the leader of the party with the most seats visits the governor-general who says “rightho me old china, run off and govern” or words to that effect, and signs the paperwork. It is purely a formality. The leader of the party concerned becomes prime minister and gets on with governing.

A hung Parliament is a much hazier proposition with little by way of precedent.

If there is no clear majority, it is open to either leader to make a case that they should be entrusted with the executive powers. Conventionally it is likely that the party with the most seats would be given the first opportunity to make its claims. But the governor-general can’t force a party to take power. If for example Abbott had the largest number of seats but no overall majority (say, 74 Coalition, 71 Labor and five independents), and stuck to his promise of not governing in a minority, he could not be made to. Rudd could tell the Governor-General he had the support to govern and would then be given the chance to demonstrate his majority in the House. As we know from the recent Gillard government experience, the fate of the government then hangs in the balance with every division (i.e. vote).

“Voters probably expect the members of Parliament they elect to have at least some passing interest in governing the country.”

It is conceivable in theory that if the independents wanted to support the Coalition but the Coalition leader refused to accept that support, there would have to be a new election. In practice that is unlikely — the Coalition would probably instead elect a new leader prepared to accept the independents’ support. Australia does not have a presidential system; the only people who get to vote for Abbott or Rudd are the electors of Warringah and Griffith. If the Coalition were to decide to change leaders after the election for the purposes of securing a majority in the House, then that would be up to them. It would not be hard to find a volunteer to become prime minister.

The situation is complicated by the constitutional requirement for the House of Representatives to elect a speaker. The speaker is not one of the numbers counted to determine the majority to form government. Traditionally the speaker comes from the party with a majority of seats, so a safe majority in the House has been regarded as at least 76 seats.

That tradition however has recently been overturned (see Peter Slipper). A party with a very narrow majority could almost certainly find someone on the other side keen on the trappings of the speaker’s office or a top-up to their superannuation who is prepared to take the job (see Peter Slipper). That person might even turn out to be a surprisingly good speaker (see Peter Slipper). In practice the office of speaker has become another piece in the complicated numbers game, rather than an absolute constraint on the ability of a party to form government.

So constitutionally and legally a party with the largest number of seats but short of an absolute majority does not have to become the government. Ethically though, would there be a problem if it did not even try?

Voters probably expect the members of Parliament they elect to have at least some passing interest in governing the country. Refusal to govern by the party with the most seats, especially if that also were the party with the largest number of votes, might backfire.

If an Abbott refusal to make deals in order to govern precipitated a new election, voters would have an interesting choice. Would they reward the Coalition for sticking to its principles, or punish it for being too high-minded for its own good? We have never been there, so the question is hypothetical, but one suspects voters might prefer pragmatism over the inconvenience of an extra election.

Abbott’s insistence on not forming minority government is an element of Coalition electoral strategy at this point of the campaign but creates a hostage for the future. In the event of a hung Parliament the promise will make life more difficult for the Governor-General in determining who has the best claims to govern, and more difficult for the Coalition in determining who is best to lead them.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Abbott’s ‘no minority govt’ pledge could cost him his job

  1. malcolm.grant1

    I would just like to point out that EVERY Liberal Prime Minister has led a Minority Government. The Coalition is nothing more than an agreement by the National/Country Party to support the Liberal Party in votes of Confidence and motions of Supply in return for political favours.

    I wish people would actually call the Libs on this, but no-one ever does.

  2. zut alors

    I’m almost tempted to believe Abbott on this – there’s a first time for everything, apparently.

    There’s no way Abbott could hold a minority govt together, he lacks the conciliatory skills required for sensitive negotiation. Just ask Windsor and Oakeshott.

    Abbott has been waiting for six years to throw his weight around unbridled, a minority scenario would be his idea of a nightmare.

  3. frey

    The question I would like the media ask is:

    Mr Abbott, Just what is it that you don’t like about democracy?

  4. zut alors

    @frey, there’s only one thing he doesn’t like about democracy ie: the democratic bit.

  5. jamie shaw

    i’m sorry but if abbott does win isn’t the coalition a minority govt contract between libs n nats or are the nats just totally taken for granted as lib lap dogs??

  6. klewso

    Tony Abbott says a lot of things.
    [Apparently, last time, he told Tony Windsor he’d “sell his arse” for one?]

    But here we are – in “The lucky Country” – to choose from “Labor’s record” and “Abbott’s NO! policies”?

  7. Observation

    Blah, blah, blah. Could someone please extract something of substance from this idiot. Hey Tony…lets do something crazy like explain some definitive policy outlines. All I hear from this nut is “We will make the economy better, We will create more jobs, We will stop the boats”. Ok great, we all want that…just show us how you intend to do these things and the accompanying budget alongside.

  8. klewso

    He reminds me of Blackadder’s footman – was it “Balldrip”?
    He was full of cunning plans too?

  9. Ramble

    I would expect a re-election if it looked like another minority shambles. The French have the right idea, repeat the vote until one party has a clear 50% (and I would suggest PRIMARY) vote, which would help clear out the pretend parties and self-righteous pompous asses we have had to tolerate.

  10. Steven Haby

    @Klewso
    Blackadder’s dogsbody was Baldrick.

  11. DiddyWrote

    Unless this statement of Abbott’s is written down in black and white in a LNP policy document it is pointless to even discuss it. His words cannot be relied on, he said it himself.
    I am now going to copy this and repeat it for the next 33 days.

  12. pretorius3

    The bloke in the photo, would you even buy a used car from this man?

    Oh, he’s running for Prime Minister …?

  13. thelorikeet

    So tempting to elect a minority government. Get rid of Abbott by voting for him juuuust. Pity its just another Abbott lie

  14. thelorikeet

    PS. Did Rupert OK this strategy?

    Just wondering

  15. Liamj

    I think Abbotts got Yes mixed up with sin, and thinks if he’s really Good & says No every time, he’ll get to be PM.

    Maybe the LNP should get Pell in as a debugger? tho he’s not much good at debuggering..

  16. klewso

    Of course, how remiss of me.

  17. klewso

    Abbott did say not to trust what he says – then he said only trust what he wrote?

    [Sort of like that chicken and the egg question?]

  18. kolah

    What malcolm.grant1 said doubled.

  19. AR

    The first thing to be said about the economic policy debate in the lead-up to the election is that we shouldn’t be having one. Economic outcomes under Labor have been good in absolute terms and spectacular when the global economic environment is taken into account. At least as regards the medium-term settings of fiscal and monetary policy, it is hard to see any reason for change.

    Labor’s economic success can be traced back to the vigorous and effective response to the global financial crisis of 2008. The government undertook a highly effective fiscal stimulus, co-ordinated its fiscal policy with the monetary policy of the Reserve Bank and fixed major vulnerabilities in the system of prudential regulation, most notably the absence of a deposit guarantee.

    The results speak for themselves. Almost alone in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Australia escaped recession, whether this is judged on the “two quarters of negative growth” rule of thumb or a more general assessment of economic performance. Inflation has remained quiescent, sitting right in the middle of the Reserve Bank’s target range. Unemployment remains near its 30-year low. Despite unfavourable demographic trends associated with the ageing of the baby boomers, the employment-population ratio is near an all-time high.

    At the same time, and despite the global crisis, some of the chronic imbalances that threatened the Australian economy when Labor came to office have abated. The bubble in house prices that emerged in the early 2000s has deflated gradually, in marked contrast with the disastrous bursting of such bubbles in many other countries. Household savings rates, negative in the last years of the Howard government, have recovered strongly to levels not seen since the 1980s. The ratio of foreign debt to national income has declined, and debt has been redirected from financing consumption (including consumption of housing services) to financing investment, primarily in the mining sector.

    It is, of course, possible to argue about the appropriate division of credit between this government, its predecessors, the success of monetary policy under the Reserve Bank, and the favourable external circumstances of the mining boom. But on the most important question of how we managed to avoid the effects of the GFC, there can be little doubt that it was government policy that was responsible. The close co-ordination between fiscal and monetary policy means that there is no sense in separating the credit due to the Reserve Bank from that due to the government.

    It is possible that a Coalition government, faced with strong advice from Treasury in favour of fiscal stimulus, would have abandoned the focus on headline measures of budget balance that characterised the Howard-Costello era. Under the actual circumstances of the crisis, however, the opposition, then led by Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, with Joe Hockey as shadow treasurer, opposed the stimulus and proposed instead to pursue permanent tax cuts.

    In retrospect it has been claimed that demand from China, and the mining boom more generally, meant that stimulus was unnecessary. This claim is nonsense for at least three reasons. First, minerals prices fell sharply in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, making Australia more rather than less vulnerable. Second, the rapid Chinese recovery was due to the policies of fiscal stimulus very similar to those adopted in Australia. And finally, the failure of economic recovery in other countries that turned rapidly to austerity once the immediate crisis was past is a further demonstration of the validity of the Keynesian analysis.

    If public debate were remotely rational then, the best course for the opposition would be to change the subject. Instead, we are in the absurd position where the LNP was until recently seen as better at economic management than Labor, and the Coalition remains equal.

    Much of the blame for this fiasco must go to former treasurer Wayne Swan. Whatever the substantive merits of the policies he oversaw, Swan failed to show any conviction in defending them. The huge success of Keynesian stimulus should have resulted in a fundamental reconsideration of the “fiscal conservatism” inherited from former PM John Howard and former treasurer Peter Costello. Instead of pursuing a target of balance or small surplus every year, Keynesian theory prescribes a counter-cyclical policy of deficits in recession and surpluses in booms.

    While occasionally paying lip service to this idea, Swan’s public rhetoric mostly treated the GFC as an embarrassing departure from reality and the return to budget surplus as a holy grail. His oft-repeated promise to return the budget to surplus by 2012-13 was, of course, a disastrous failure in practice. Even worse though was the rhetorical gift to the spurious economic analysis propounded by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in which budget surplus is the sole goal of fiscal policy.

    Similar points may be made with respect to prudential regulation. While the Australian financial system survived the crisis very well and with relatively limited government intervention, the crisis exposed fundamental flaws in the reasoning underlying the light-handed regulation introduced in the 1980s, and extended by the Wallis Review in 1996. It was obvious that a new review was needed — even businessman Stan Wallis himself said as much last year. But Swan resolutely refused to consider such a measure, leaving the opposition an obvious opportunity to win votes, which it has taken by proposing its own inquiry. Even such a simple step as charging banks for the guarantee introduced in 2008 and made permanent in 2011 was too much for Swan.

    Since returning to office, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has gone some distance towards remedying Swan’s total inability to communicate an economic message. It remains to be seen, however, whether he will repair the damage in time.

  20. AR

    Moderator oops, sorry, that was a clerical error, left over from saving this excellent piece into my Word.

  21. beachcomber

    Tony Abbott could not get agreement from 3 Independents from the Right (Katter, Windsor and Oakeshott) to make him PM last time. He would face the same problem with a hung Parliment again.

    Despite being prepared to sell his arse for the top job, he is not popular outside the Liberal Party. He is not a team player, not capable of negotiation, compromise and coalition building.

    If another Hung Parliament results from this election, the Liberals will dump Abbott and replace him with Turnbull in the hope of snatching power.

    And then all Abbott’s election promises (meaningless, uncosted, and untrustworthy as they are) will count for nothing.

  22. phyllis stein

    @1: what malcolm.grant1 said. I can’t understand why the Q has not been asked. and… @ 19: AR this essay should have been submitted last week. It fails to address the set question and produced an alert on the Anti Plagiarism Software.

  23. Sharkie

    If the “no minority government” promise did cost Abbott the top job, he could always release his new book: “A definitive guide to Australia’s abattoirs and butcher shops” by Tony Abbott.
    At least his endless tours of meat works in bright clothing (rather than policy development work) may come to some good.

  24. david chart

    it sounds to me like a easy promise to make Stephen! just which independent or green MP do you think would do a deal with the liberals anyway?
    let me state the bleeding obvious – none! and the liberals know it.
    any journalist criticizing Abbott for that statement should be writing in the good food guide!

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