Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

'Lame duck' governments and democracy


'Lame Duck Gillard' by Chris Johnston. Cartoon depiction of an injured, feathered Julia Gillard rolling downhill over Tony Abbott's footThe last few months before an election make for strange politics, especially when the defeat of the incumbent government seems imminent. The Gillard Government is being targeted as a lame duck government. The use of such language is a tactic by its opponents to slow down government decision-making over the next four months.

Federal governments have changed from one party to another just five times in the modern era: 1972, 1975, 1983, 1996 and 2007. In some of these instances there was an expectation among the party leaders that change was imminent. Whitlam expected to win in 1972, for instance.

But in no other case did a long-term opposition leader believe their election was certain. Fraser, Hawke, Howard and Rudd had not long been opposition leader. In no case was the government in office, even Keating's in 1996, seen as a total lame duck. In 1993 the election was described as 'unloseable' for the opposition, but it lost.

When an opposition starts to think seriously about governing it realises how much it won't be able to change. Elections change governments but leave much of the institutional infrastructure in place. This includes some decisions taken by the outgoing government in its dying days.

Tony Abbott has already promised to repeal the carbon and mining taxes. He may even call a double dissolution election to enable him to do so if his plans are blocked in the Senate.

Now he is worried about other Gillard Government actions, such as the recent reappointments of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and the Governor of the Reserve Bank. To raise the stakes he has also demanded that Julia Gillard promise not to appoint a new governor-general to replace Quentin Bryce.

He raises the issue of caretaker conventions, claiming that 'no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor'. In the past caretaker conventions have been applied only to the period after a government enters caretaker mode upon the issuing of the writs for the next election. The legitimate province of a potential successor is unclear beyond that.

Governments should keep governing actively until a reasonably short period before the next election. Three year terms of government are already very short anyway.

A government has every right not just to keep the wheels of government turning but to continue to try to implement its program even if it is just trying to improve its chances of re-election. In doing so they might make it more difficult for the incoming government to change direction, but that's democracy.

In the case of contract appointments the usual rules should apply. The rights of employees to security should be respected. A decision to reappoint at least six months before the end of a contract is reasonable. This means the reappointment now of Glenn Stevens as Governor of the Reserve Bank from 17 September is appropriate, while the reappointment of Ed Killesteyn as Electoral Commissioner from January 2014 is at least defensible.

But let's not be naïve. The Gillard Government is playing politics too. Stevens and Killesteyn have gained the Government's support by their performance in highly political areas. Labor wants to retain them. The Opposition is dissatisfied with the approval given by the AEC to a more open approach to electoral enrolment.

There is no doubt, however, that the Gillard Government is seen as a certainty to lose and this perception is reducing the leverage that it has at its disposal. Its inability to influence some Coalition state leaders at the recent COAG meeting is one example. The likely post-election change-over looms large in federal-state relations.

This explains the extremely personal criticism of NSW Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell by the Opposition camp for signing on to the Gonski education funding package. He suffered condemnation for just being a pretend conservative and for giving Gillard a victory at the wrong time. That's what pre-election politics descends to, especially when just about everyone thinks the government is headed for certain defeat.



John Warhurst headshotJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Labor, Coalition



submit a comment

Existing comments

Regarding both Government and Opposition in Canberra, John, I am reminded of Lord Acton's adage about power. In this particular situation I would suggest that the almost aphrodisiac quality the possession of power holds for the PM and what appears to be the Leader of the Opposition's steady climb towards its intellectual Viagra are both not good for the country. The PM cut her teeth politically in student politics at Melbourne whilst Abbott did the same at Sydney. As a graduate of Melbourne I would regard with askance any former student politico from there. We urgently need better politicians more interested in the long term future of the economy and nation. I regard the current bunch as being metaphorically guilty of premature ejaculation in that their lust for power and domination means they cannot do anything for the long term good of the nation. The NBN fiasco and the disaster to come re Australia's biggest military lemon to come - the largest conventional submarine yet to be built (remember the appalling Collins Class tin cans?) and Abbott's proposed "solutions" leave me totally underwhelmed. Oh for something like the British Liberal Democrats!

Edward F | 04 May 2013  

When making that most important of decisions - my political allegiance - I need look no further than my knowledgable and observant friend, Leunig: From "Presidents and Prime Ministers" Our leaders stand like queens and kings/So noble, truthful, just and wise/That tears of gladness fill our eyes./Until, upon election day/We vote and have them flushed away. (Thanks Leunig)

Pam | 05 May 2013  

No need to insult the Gillard government by saying the opposition has given it 'lame duck' status. The Gillard govt has achieved this all on its own. Once the manifest lies pile up and are continually evident to the public (carbon tax, surplus etc etc), there is a loss of credibility and no amount of blaming the 'other' party can make up for it.

Skye | 06 May 2013  

Thanks for this, John. My only objection is that you repeat the mantra that the Labor-led minority government is on the way out. (You make this statement no fewer than 3 times.) If you have any serious concerns about the LNP alternative, I suggest that you resist this temptation. We are in danger of unwittingly, or at least, unthinkingly playing into the hands of those who have created what they hope will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's keep our minds open. Let's think for ourselves. Let's not be anybody's dupes. Let's look at the facts, and let's reject the spin. (For Fair Media Alliance - http://fairmediaalliance.wordpress.com/

Kate Ahearne | 06 May 2013  

No need to insult the Gillard government by saying the opposition has given it 'lame duck' status. The Gillard govt has achieved this all on its own. Once the manifest lies pile up and are continually evident to the public (carbon tax, surplus etc etc), there is a loss of credibility and no amount of blaming the 'other' party can make up for it.

Skye | 06 May 2013  

SKY, I would like to take issue with you and all the others who insist that the Government are telling lies when they have to change track and either do or not do something. That's like promising I would be at a meeting when a road crash prevents me from being there. Lies are of a very different order and are about protecting myself when the truth reveals me as being utterly self-serving. Which makes me wonder why you can't use your real name when you write. What are you afraid of?!

Peter Hardiman | 06 May 2013  

Julia Gillard has achieved this remarkable situation all on her own. She has negotiated with pathetically weak Independents to form a Govt that has had no connection with the electorate. She was complicit in the ending of Kevin Rudd's prime ministership. She, and she alone, has attacked Tony Abbott without let up and on the advice of her self appointed, John McTernan. Then she announced an election date and is proceeding to make decisions that will negatively impact the next govt - whether it be Liberal or Labor. There is no way this situation can be described as anything but lame duck - and it is getter lamer. [Less than 30% of a democracy want them to continue and they cannot all be wrong.] Time to view this with clarity for all Australians.

Jackie | 06 May 2013  

It is widely believed Labor will lose the coming election and this may lead to an unusual campaign – and major, unforeseen consequences afterwards. While it is customary for each side of politics to criticize the other during election campaigns, the parties usually also devote a great deal of publicity to their own promises and policies. This time it may well be different. Seeming assured of victory, Tony Abbott’s campaign tactics may concentrate on denigrating Labor and give little publicity to the full range of intentions of a Coalition government, especially those that adversely affect the less-affluent. In a few months’ time Australia may have a politically conservative, self-opionuated Prime Minister with a ‘blank cheque’.

Bob Corcoran | 06 May 2013  

Well said, Kate Ahearne. People need to remember that in Abbott we have perhaps the only political leader in the world who wants his or her country to have a foreigner as its head of state. This in itself should be enough reason for any self-respecting Australian to deny her or his vote to the LNP.

Peter Downie | 06 May 2013  

Peter, I take your point about road crashes but there was no road crash necessitating the carbon tax. People in the electorate don't like being taken for fools. The carbon tax has cost jobs and is not lowering the world temperature, nor inducing others to do so.

SKYE | 06 May 2013  

If failing to keep a promise is a lie , then many politicians (as a former PM said ) " handle the truth very carelessly" . A previous PM said ,prior to an election, "that never ever would there be a GSt", yet when he gained office instituted a GST. They seem to say what it takes to gain office, with little regard for their true intentions. Pity we don't have anyone to " keep the bastards honest " in present times.

David Sykes | 06 May 2013  

I'm glad that Emeritus Professors of Political Science are allowed to comment on the state of politics in Australia. It just a pity more of them don't, no matter what their political persuasion. Professor Warhurst's support for Australia becoming a republic doesn't seem to influence his political commentary. I find this particular article exemplary in its objectivity and cogency. He didn't take the criticism of Premier O'Farrell by his federal Liberal colleagues as a sign of the Liberals absolute belief in the slogan "Disunity is death". It was an illustration of the divisive Australian federal system of government working. It was more than just an example of Paul Keating's dictum - "Never get between the Premiers and a bucket of cash." It was an example of the difference between a pragmatic state Liberal leader comfortable in the exercise of power and an aspiring Liberal PM who is single-minded in his pursuit of power - and pity help any Premier who gets between him and The Lodge.

Uncle Pat | 06 May 2013  

I find the level of comments here pretty disconcerting. My difficulty with all the assertions being made from all sides is the difficulty in ferreting out what is the truth. We have a media which does not seem to care much in presenting the facts. I despair when reading many articles full of opinion with no basis in factual reporting. The opposition has been pretty successful in ramming home simple messages by constant repetition. It is a good propaganda ploy. That doesn't make them true. The government has provided them with plenty of opportunities to do this but I am not sure they were totally deserved. It might be that when the dust settles after the election the Gillard government may be seen to have achieved a lot more than is apparent or reported on at the moment. I also suspect that had Gillard been male she would have been treated with a lot more respect by all parties than she has.

PETER | 06 May 2013  

I find it strange that there are still some people who think that Julia Gillard will win the forthcoming Federal Election. 40,000 people have now arrived by boat under Labor's failed border protection. It is a failure that has cost lives, damaged our country's reputation, cost over $6.6 billion in Budget blowouts and resulted in ten thousands of people dumped into the community. "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all the time".

Ron Cini | 06 May 2013  

Quite so, Professor - this government is no lame duck. It's dead in the water!

John | 12 May 2013  

Similar Articles

Labor goes from Robin Hood to the Sheriff of Nottingham

  • John Falzon
  • 17 May 2013

You don't build someone up by putting them down. You don't help someone into employment by pushing them into poverty. By keeping the unemployment benefit low, successive governments have deliberately humiliated people rather than improving their chances.


Gutsy budget built around icons

  • Lin Hatfield Dodds
  • 16 May 2013

The 2013 Federal Budget is framed around a national disability insurance scheme, education reform, and welfare to work focused welfare spending. The jewel in the crown has to be DisabilityCare, which will make a significant difference in the daily lives of nearly half a million Australians.