Friday, August 27, 2010

Is a hung parliament a good election outcome?

It seems that neither Labor nor the Coalition have won a clear majority of seats in the House of Representatives in last week’s federal election, so Australia is to have a hung parliament. This means that a group of independents will decide which of the major parties forms government.

The message that some people are taking from the result, or lack of result, is that the electorate has become disenchanted with the major political parties. There are good reasons for people to be disenchanted with the major parties, but the electorate does not have a single mind that can become disenchanted. Even if a higher proportion of voters have voted for minor parties, it is possible to have a substantial proportion of the vote going to minor parties without a hung parliament. The hung parliament reflects the closeness of the votes for the major parties.

I think a hung parliament is the worst possible outcome we could have obtained. As I explained in an earlier post, it is difficult for electors to hold governments accountable for outcomes when parties go to the polls to seek endorsement of their policies and then, after the election, enter into negotiations to decide what policies the government will actually implement. It is possible that independents will use their power to obtain improvements in parliamentary procedures. It will be surprising, however, if we do not also see policies being adopted to advantage narrow interests – favouring regional groups or groups with particular environmental concerns – at the expense of the wider community.

Fortunately, a hung parliament happens rarely under the system of single member electorates that we have in the House of Representatives. This situation is unlikely to change even if independents take more seats from the National Party in future elections. The National Party – as a regionally based party – chooses to remain in a long-term coalition with the Liberals because it can pursue the objectives of its supporters more effectively that way rather than by exercising the balance of power. Even if the National Party was completely replaced by independents the voters who support them would generally expect their representative to favour the conservative side of politics.

It is normal for minor parties to hold the balance of power in the Senate because of the proportional representation system of voting for that chamber. This does not matter so much because of the strong tradition that governments are formed in the House of Representatives. Although minor parties that hold the balance of power in the Senate may be able to bring down governments by blocking budgets, they usually have reason to be fearful of the electoral consequences of doing this.

There is a fair chance that the next parliament will appear to work reasonably well even though the governing party does not have a clear majority. The independents and party leaders have strong incentives to appear to be trying to work well together to avoid an early election. Even the costly compromises that emerge may seem reasonable under the circumstances.

Some people may even suggest that the political system should be changed to bring about this kind of outcome all the time, as under the MMP system in New Zealand. Don’t be fooled. A hung parliament is like bad weather – it is something we have to put up with from time to time. We don’t have to like it!


Anonymous said...

Hi Winton,
I do not like the idea of the Independents holding the Country to ransom I think this is a ridiculous situation. Some of the things that these people are asking for is beyound a joke.
I would really like to go to the polls again, and I know a lot don't agree with that, but I don't think this is going to work out at all. When the New Senate gets in July next year I would be very surprised if we don't end up with a DD, that way we also get to pick the Senate again as well.

Winton Bates said...

I agreed with your post on this.

I have almost persuaded myself that the parliament will run for close to a full term. But I don't think I will put money on it!

By the way, I like your new blog. Best wishes for it.

Jan said...

I am so glad I have found your blog Winston :-)

I reckon that if the independents hold out we could have some real democratic reform. I think this is the most exciting thing that has happened to Australian politics since I've been voting and that has been 'awhile' now!

We need to stop the lobbyists from accessing our politicians and dictating terms. That goes for both parties. Unrealistic maybe, but it can be done if the political will can encouraged.

A good example of the above has been the recent mining company resource rent tax. Why should we be dictated to by any multinational companies benefiting from our finite natural resources?

The mining companies didn't save us from the global was our own natural resources that did it and benefited those enormously who sold them. Why shouldn't all Australians benefit from these God-given bounties?

Why aren't more policies debated on the floor of parliament instead of the abuse they usually hurl at each other? I listen to the ABC broadcasts and get absolutely disgusted...along with many others who listen to their childish behaviour.

Why can't we limit poker machine profits so more of the money stays in the local communities and we try to protect the families of gambling addicts? $120.00 an hour losses is far more than the avergae household can afford to lose anyway.

I could go on ...and on...

I reckon one of the biggest reasons the ALP didn't get back was because of the removal of Kevin Rudd. I reckon a 'back room deal' was done by the mining companies and the faceless mob to remove him because he was sticking to his guns and would have negotiated a much better deal for all Australians.

Oh well...looks like Australian's superannuation funds may have to fund the infrastructure Australia desperately needs.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jan
I tend to agree with you that this is the most exciting thing to happen in Australian politics for a while. I appreciate politics as a form of entertainment. Watching the election results come in last weekend was as exciting as watching the last few minutes of the Collingwood Hawthorn football game yesterday afternoon.

At the same time I find that there is nothing more boring than a politician who is on message, endlessly repeating meaningless phrases that some focus group told researchers that people like hearing. When politicians argue their views in a forthright manner that can be entertaining - whatever views they are presenting.

However, let us not forget the Chinese curse: 'May you live in interesting times'. I think this election result is too interesting to be good for us.