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'Lame duck' governments and democracy

  • 06 May 2013

The 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