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Tasmanian Greens and the terror of coalitions

  • 23 March 2010

'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