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Minority Government stands the test of time


Dented armourThe final session of Federal Parliament had a familiar ring to it. The Opposition was putting Julia Gillard under enormous pressure by calling for her resignation over the AWU slush fund affair while the Government was attempting business as usual. Whatever happens now there will be no election until March 2013 at the earliest.

This means the Gillard Labor Government has gone almost full term despite relentless pressure from the Opposition and a hung parliament. Even a mid-March election would mean the Government has run for more than two and a half of its three years, about par for the course for Australian governments.

Gillard herself has survived since the last election on 21 August 2010 despite constant pressure from her predecessor Kevin Rudd, one unsuccessful challenge and regular speculation about his intentions.

Her minority government has survived against the odds. There have been no by-elections to change the parliamentary numbers, and no one has deserted the Labor Government on the floor of the House to facilitate a change of government.

We've had two and a half years of speculation about the fate of Craig Thomson over his alleged misuse of Heath Services Union funds. He now sits on the cross-bench rather than with Labor.

We've had two and a half years of extreme personal pressure on the rural Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. This pressure has been exacerbated by public opinion polls, specially commissioned by media outlets, predicting their certain downfall at the next election. All this has been waged against two individuals who, with no political party to support them, must rely on a small circle of friends and colleagues.

We've had 12 months of concentration on the Coalition deserter, Peter Slipper, who was offered the speakership and then, after a few effective months in the office, was forced to resign following sexual abuse allegations.

We've had Independent Andrew Wilkie's rupture with Labor over the Government's failure to proceed with his plans for poker machine regulation. His personal relationship with Gillard has broken down but he has not forced the Government out.

These controversies have made for a remarkably turbulent period in Australian politics but the minority government arrangements have survived.

Academics have been quite cautious about the likely fall of either Gillard or her Government before a full term. But insiders, spurred on by the media looking for stories and briefed by either Tony Abbott or the backers of Rudd, have regularly predicted imminent catastrophe. I've been told confidently on innumerable occasions that there would either be a change of government, an election or a successful leadership challenge.

Yet the determination of the Government and the PM to survive, together with the self-interest of those MPs backing her, made a full term the likely outcome.

The best chance for Labor and its four parliamentary supporters to survive was to go full term so that some progress could be made on policy implementation and time could bring some community healing and some sting taken out of Opposition criticisms.

The Gillard Government has now made the next federal election into a competitive contest. Public opinion polls over the past three months suggest the Government has a chance. The same polls report that Gillard has got the best of the Opposition leader for the time being. Pressure seems now to be on the Opposition for the first time.

But stability is never guaranteed. Leaders and governments can disappear at short notice. Gillard is now the focus of renewed Opposition attack over her professional dealings before entering parliament. There is even the chance that she herself will call an election for March or April as the Government's budgetary situation worsens.

Survival has come at a cost. The Government bears damaging scars. To survive is no guarantee of emerging victorious in the end. Labor is still unlikely to win the next election.

Nevertheless history will now record that the Gillard government has survived much longer than the doomsayers thought would be the case.


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

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Tony Windsor, Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson, Rob Oakeshott



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Existing comments

Despite the odds, despite the pundits, despite the torrent of abuse from Abbott and the coalition, despite the attacks of the Murdoch gutter press, Gillard and her government have not only survived but pro-actively governed and in doing so have shown that it can be done through consultation and negotiation without the need for the gross power that comes with an absolute majority. I for one will be hoping for another hung parliament at the next election.

Ginger Meggs | 07 December 2012  

The brutopia that is Queensland under Newman (88% of the seats with 51% of the vote) is one of the best arguments against majoritarianism around. Yes, the ALP is almost terminally tainted with the banal corruption and cynicism of the dross of which it is composed. However, forced into co-operating with the most honourable and decent people in the Parliament (independents and Greens), the ALP has been forced to lift its game. The same can certainly not be said of the vicious thugs who persist with Tony Abbott.

David Arthur | 07 December 2012  

The Opposition's refusal to accept that they had not been elected coupled with their belief that only the Coalition were a legitimate Government led to silly statements and childish games to undermine Labor and shift the Governments focus away from governing and achieving outcomes. We heard senior MPs incorrectly talk down the economy in their efforts to regain power, leading to lack of confidence by the average voter. The end result is a major lack of confidence by the populace in our democratic system.

Mike | 07 December 2012  

Thank you, John, for your article. I'm one of those who would dearly love to be able to vote wholeheartedly towards the left. I've had no problem with supporting the PM throughout the recent AWU nonsense. And I loved her extraordinary speech in Parliament against what she percieved as the misogyny that was and is still focused against her. But I really can't support her about the way we are behaving towards refugees. In particular, the return of Tamils to Sri Lanka without any attempt on our Government's part to even appear to make an adequate assessment. This is quite horrible. If the media want to bring Julia Gillard down, let them forget AWU and get cracking about the return of refugees to death and/or imprisonment in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Even let them ignore the rest of the horror that has been going on about the boat people. If they really want to bring her down, let them pressurise the hell out of her about this stinky thing that is happening about the Sri Lankan Tamils, at the same time that other refugees are being released into the community. As Australians, we are behaving more disgustingly than I have ever known us to do. This beats 'children overboard', hands down, and the major political parties are getting away with it because they are 'on song' with each other. And because we, the voters,are apathetic, selfish, short-sighted, blinkered, and just not facing facts. We've got our mortgages. We've got our jobs. Well, most of us are lucky enough. Either way, we just don't seem to care.

Kate Ahearne | 07 December 2012  

I find John Warhurst’s sympathy for Windsor and Oakeshott undeserved. The main reason that they have been under pressure is that they aligned themselves with a leftist party, despite being from deeply conservative electorates. It is one thing to stand as an independent as you are dissatisfied with mainstream parties. It is entirely another matter when you do a volte-face from your pre-election political philosophy. Constituents from Windsor and Oakeshott’s electorates were calling for their blood immediately after they announced that they would be backing Gillard. They felt betrayed. I do not see that it matters who commissions public polls. Unless John Warhurst can show some sort of manipulation in the method or the figures, what’s the issue? Windsor and Oakeshott made their decision and have enjoyed a much higher profile and influence in a hung parliament than they would have had either party had a clear majority. Should they care to stand again they can take their cases to their respective electorates next time round. Somehow I doubt that they will and that says something about the judgment of the majority that put them in last time.

MJ | 07 December 2012  

They may have survived but at what cost? Manufacturing in this country is at an all time low. There is little hope for prosperity. Interests rates are damaging to those of us who look to retirement. No incentive has been given. Just claims and counter claims of one party against another in what was promised to be a 'new paradigm.' Well - it is sadly disappointing and a slight on both parties that the arguments persist over ridiculous accusations of one against the other. Defamation should be on the agenda if this carry on continues. We deserve far more. No sympathy for any of them.

Jack | 07 December 2012  

Of all those in Canberra, in the lower house, Tony Windsor has come out of all this sounding and behaving as a decent person putting the contry ahead of personal ambitions, follwed by Oakeshot. Thereafter, things get a bit murky. No doubt there are backbenchers working away on all sides that we never hear of. Our newspapers have failed, all of them, in their cheapskate coverage and pushing of opinion, which all sounds very Fox News like these days, while the ABC has become a rundown machine trying to emulate all the worst aspects of Channel 10 TV. Even RN has become a 'magazine' style radio mix. I too would prefer a minority government again rather than face the bigots of the LNP, who are on full display in Qld and NSW, not to mention WA, back to their old tricks of govern-by-mates, although of course, that sounds a bit slim when we look at the ALP in NSW, who have only ever managed that model. Overall though, having been cursed with Rudd at the outset, then forced to endure Gillard's ideological free politics, all that can be said, is that we'd be worse off still with Abbott, hardly a ringing endorsement of the ALP-Green partnership.

janice wallace | 07 December 2012  

An excellent objective observation. I enjoyed reading it

john.stuyfbergen | 07 December 2012  

Agreed Janice, but I would add Anna Burke, Judy Moylan, and Russell Broadbent to the list of creditable performers.

Ginger Meggs | 07 December 2012  

MJ wrote: "Unless John Warhurst can show some sort of manipulation in the method or the figures, what’s the issue?".

I had an interesting phone call from a machine some months ago. At about Q3, I gave the "wrong" answer and was immediately disconnected. It could have been accidental.

However, some weeks later a caller to Jon Faine's program on ABC's 774 Melbourne reported the same behaviour. Coincidence?

I am waiting for incident #3. As James Bond was reported to have said: "Once is chance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action".

Peter Horan | 07 December 2012  

The so-called scandals have been media concoctions and Slipper was not charged with sexual abuse - there is a vast gulf between abuse and mild harassment you know. But we now see the government trading and trafficking humans, breaking every law and sending people home in breach of their rights. Yeah, some victory.

Marilyn | 09 December 2012  

I think the Governments' greatest success was to bring in a carbon tax and start Australia on the road to a new, green economy. Much more needs to be done here to avert the projected, catastrophic rise in global temperatures by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100. If Abbot wins the next election, I think the big polluters will be overjoyed as they continue their greedy exploitation at the expense of the environment, and humanity. I have seen nothing of substance from the Coalition that will be anything like as good as putting a price on carbon. I think Abbot gave away his real postion on this issue when he said that 'climate change is crap'. The UN World Health Organisation estimates about 150 000 people are already dying each year due to the effects of climate change.

The 2009 Victorian bushfires took about 350 lives from heat stress alone, as well as those who were so horribly burnt to death. How many Australians will die from extreme weather events this summer? It could include someone reading this. Wake up Australia! Wake up world! Thank God for the Greens, who have at least prompted Gillard to take some action.

George Allen | 10 December 2012  

In spite of a Coalition that is bereft of anything politically intelligible and a dominent right-wing press (stablemate of the hacking NoTW) that's pathologically preoccupied with making minced meat of the Labor Party, life continues in a relatively normal manner (even for those dreadful Queenslanders and NSWalespersons who almost crowned Abbott as PM). So far divine interventions have punished them for their misguided deeds. Definitely a case against majoritarianism, David Arthur.

My 'inside' information suggests that as long as Abbott is at the helm, assisted by NoTW's Oz cousin, The Australian et al, Labor might just sneak in and form - at least - a two-seat or three majority government. When that happens, the Greens and the Independents may well boost the government's political clout to restore the labour values that it lost along the way.

Alex Njoo | 10 December 2012  

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