'If my friend cannot ride two horses — what's he doing in the bloody circus?'
Jimmy Maxton, Independent Labour Party
Australian politics is known to have an inbuilt sensitivity to power sharing arrangements from parties across the spectrum. Independents are loathed as ineffectual, seen as mere electoral props. Small parties are considered nuisances who are wooed only because they have to be, and stifled by electoral regulations that limit their influence. Multiparty coalitions (with the exception of the conservative Federal Coalition) are seen as enterprises that are doomed to fail. Diversity is danger.
The delivery by voters of a hung parliament in Tasmania on Saturday jars the sensibility of the political establishment. The political cognoscenti are relieved the same result was not replicated in South Australia, where the Rann government looks likely to hold on to the barest of leads.
In the scrapping Tasmanian state election, Labor and the Liberals have secured ten seats apiece. The resurgent Greens, deemed the true winners in the contest with five, are looked upon with a degree of trepidation.
While it would be normal in a European constituency, or even a New Zealand one, to cast one's hand across the aisle as a helping hand to make pluralist government work, the situation here has been presented as dramatic, radical and disturbing.
The last state elections in Tasmania were blueprints of fear and loathing for the very idea that either major party could work with a minor one. Instability and chaos was bound to be the only electoral product such an alliance might produce. The same political nonsense prevails in the stubborn insistence by both the Liberals and Labor to avoid a power sharing agreement with the Greens, even though this position will be unsustainable.
The Greens leader Nick McKim has so far proven sensible, keen to form an alliance with either party, given the appropriate circumstances.
Analysts and political pundits are gradually warming to the idea that power sharing arrangements between established large parties and emerging smaller ones may become a reality in Australian politics. Consider the view of Norman Abjorensen (Inside Story, 9 November 2009), who considers the scenario after analysing the Labor-Green relationship in the ACT, current since 2008.
'Labor is looking increasingly vulnerable in its inner-seats,' he surmises, pointing to advances by the Greens in the primary vote in Melbourne (23 per cent in 2007), Sydney (21 per cent) and Grayndler in Sydney's inner west (near 19 per cent). On paper, the ACT example may be seen as singular to that territory, with its distinctive, progressive demographic. That is no reason to assume it can't be repeated elsewhere.
Tactics used by the established parties towards their smaller challengers vary, though they all share the common strain of bullying. Allegations of illegality have been mooted against the Green power structure in Tasmania by a Labor Party staffer, suggesting that received donations have not been declared.
Labor election flyers also portrayed the Tasmanian Greens as 'extremists' whose intention to legalise heroin was bound to 'backfire'. Labor officials may have been taking counsel from Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis, who described the green movement in 2003 as having 'frightening similarities' with 'the methods and values of the Nazis.'
Such attitudes, indicative of a condition that political scientists diagnose as 'cartel behaviour', only enhances the appeal of minor parties. As political scientist Paul Williams explained to the Sydney Morning Herald (16 March), 'The more the major parties do it the more it disenfranchises ordinary voters who are then more likely to go to alternatives out of sheer bloody mindedness because they don't like the tactics.'
Indeed, there is a note of negativity even in some Green circles, with a piece by Tim Burton in the Green Left Online gloomy over 'overseas' examples where the Greens stumbled when in office. 'The Irish and Czech Greens became props for right-wing governments implementing anti-social and anti-environmental policies.'
The example in Germany was even more shocking to the progressive sensibility, when the German Greens decided to sell 'out its support base by agreeing to the continuation of nuclear power'. Power might corrupt, but to have none corrupts even more.
The polls are moving at a rate that will worry the Rudd Government. An arrangement with the Greens may be unavoidable, should Labor wish to retain power at various levels of government. A federal equivalent to Tasmania is unlikely to eventuate for several elections, but it is a distinct possibility. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in politics and law at RMIT University, Melbourne.