There's no shame in minority government



Minority government is as good as any alternative when its advantages and disadvantages are weighed up. Three years of minority government from 2010–2013 showed that.

Julia Gillard graffitiEffective minority government is common around the world. It is a form of government which depends on compromise and negotiation and can deliver fairer and more inclusive outcomes.

It can also be slower, apparently messier and less decisive. It can give too much power to individual MPs.

Those who dislike minority government include the big parties which prefer a two-party system with government alternating regularly between the two. They want sole control over executive government when they hold the reins of power.

But when the big parties condemn the idea of a so-called hung parliament it is just self-interest speaking, as when both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten expressed their horror at the prospect of any sort of alliance with the Greens. Adam Bandt, the Greens Member for Melbourne, had indicated that the Greens were ready for an alliance if the big parties fell short of a majority in their own right.

The Coalition and Labor didn't want to show any lack of confidence in their prospects by admitting that possibility. They particularly didn't want to invite speculation about an alliance with the Greens because of their policies on climate change and refugees.

The prospect of a Greens alliance drew front page publicity, but the bigger issue was minority government itself.

The Gillard government was not a Labor-Greens alliance at all but a more broadly-based minority government. Julia Gillard needed four extra votes to govern and she managed to negotiate the support of first the Greens, then Andrew Wilkie, and finally both Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Surprisingly no one pointed this out.


"A much bigger problem for Labor during the Rudd-Gillard years than minority government was leadership instability. That is the legacy that will hurt Labor."


It was also surprising that Shorten missed the opportunity to defend the legacy of the Gillard government, a successful minority government which executed a considerable legislative program under extreme pressure.

There were good reasons for this hesitation, given his role in Labor's two leadership changes. However, despite that, Labor must always express pride in its legacy. Unwisely, after Labor's 1996 defeat, the new leader Kim Beazley failed to talk up the positive Hawke-Keating legacy. If Shorten allows 2007-2013 to be portrayed as disaster years it will ultimately hurt his chances of becoming prime minister.

A much bigger problem for Labor during the Rudd-Gillard years than minority government was leadership instability. That is the legacy that will hurt Labor, despite Turnbull subsequently ejecting Tony Abbott from office. The stain of deposing two prime ministers remains, but it should not be conflated with minority government.

Australia has a bicameral system with two chambers of parliament. At any one time there are many governing possibilities and we have had many permutations and combinations since 2005 when the Howard majority government won control of the Senate. During all this time government has continued quite effectively as governments have learned to live with the cards they have been dealt. There has been some grizzling about the supposed effects of both minority government and/or Senate power. Eventually this led the Coalition and the Greens combined to change the Senate voting system to eliminate micro parties.

But the outstanding negative characteristic of this period has been the three occasions on which prime ministers have been deposed. The next most negative examples have come from over-confidence and broken promises, leading to the two most damaging events for the Coalition over the past decade. The first was Work Choices, the extreme industrial relations legislation introduced in 2006 when John Howard's government over-reached because it controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate. That led to Howard's defeat in 2007.

The second major aberration was Abbott's 2014 budget, the most unpopular recent budget. It was the product of out-of-control self-confidence by a newly-elected majority government and led eventually to Abbott's demise. It remains to be seen whether the Coalition can recover from that hit.

So when major party leaders express their absolute horror at the thought of minority government, remind them of the adverse consequences of unchecked majority government.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Julia Gillard graffiti image:, Flickr CC

Topic tags: John Warhurst, minority government



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Existing comments

Watching the leaders' debate last night was a bit like going to the dentist. Necessary, but do I really want to be here! Turnbull looked assured but the words were scary. And Shorten looked like someone trying to be someone else. Both were disappointing on the issue of asylum seekers. There's a real possibility that a minority government may ensue from the election and then the Greens will have something to say. Unchecked majority government: now there are three words voters must think hard about!

Pam | 30 May 2016  

Too many people confuse the role of the government with the role of parliament. The government is there to run the country according to law, the parliament is there to enact or repeal the law and to oversee the government. The real danger occurs when the government has control of the parliament, especially when it controls both houses, because then we have both government and law-making by executive fiat. The danger with minority governments is when one person or one group holds the balance of power because then we get the sort of horse-trading that says I/we will support this if you concede that, where this and that are in different areas of policy. The classic example of this was when Brian Harradine misused his power to secure a ban on an abortion drug as his price for allowing the partial privatisation of Telstra. That is unlikely to happen when the balance of power is shared by many cross-benchers. On the floor of the entrance to the Victorian Parliament one can read the words 'Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety'. Abbott's 'Captain's Picks' are good examples of 'where there is no counsel'.

Ginger Meggs | 30 May 2016  

I totally disagree John! Labor needs to promote its own policies, going for broke, looking to the future with a vision. Time later to decide whether its necessary to go into coalition but not before. It only encourages people who want to protest against the major parties voting for the Greens knowing that Labor will join them in leadership. The Labor legacy is there for everyone to see, it doesn't need to become an anchor.

Carol | 31 May 2016  

Consumerist fog and partisan amnesia are two of the biggest obstacles to Australian democracy at present, in my humble opinion. Stay the course, John! Thanks for your informed perspective and clarity of analysis.

Wayne Sanderson | 31 May 2016  

The Gillard government's broadly-based minority government had many successes, including the CARBON TAX which caused carbon emissions to decline. The Government's Direct Action policy is causing our emissions to rise again. No wonder the Australian Conservation Foundation scored the Coalition 11 out of 100 for its conservation policies, with Labor scoring 53 out of 100 and the Greens 77 out of 100. I think a Labor/Green power-sharing government would be by far the best after the election. The Greens would put pressure on Labor to do more to save the environment and the Great Barrier Reef and to change the cruel policy of forcing the 1600 asylum seekers on off-shore 'hell-holes' to remain there indefinitely. They might even effect much-needed change in the political donations system that is badly damaging our democracy.

Grant Allen | 31 May 2016  

All Labor arrangements with the Greens have been failures electorally. Working class people cannot stand the Greens for a massive variety of reasons and many have deserted Labor at the subsequent election.

angela | 31 May 2016  

The fact -- which many electors and (less excusably) political journalists overlook -- is that for most of the time when the conservative :"side" of politics has been in power in Australia we have had "minority governments": it has been rare for the Liberal party to have a majority to allow it to form a government; almost invariably, that party has had to negotiate a coalition with the Country/National Party. That has never horrified the Liberals nor the electorate at large. Sometimes there has been instability (e.g. in 1941 and a number of earlier occasions), but mostly there has, more-or-less, been stability. The German government is, currently, a stable coalition and it has often been so during its impressive democratic history since 1949. The present "panic" of the two major political blocs has been, as Professor Warhurst sensibly writes, opportunistic and self-interested. The advantage of coalitions -- which the electorate should consider rationally and without fear -- is that they encourage consultation and (eventually) more thought for what the people might prefer.

John Carmody | 31 May 2016  

We may be moving towards a more broadly based government, reflecting the diversity of our population. Representative governments are the norm in some European countries. The duopoly that we have no longer appeals to many voters who feel that the Coalition and Labour agree on too many issues that are not necessarily in the public interest. Examples include refugee policies, border protection, increasing surveillance that limits privacy and the public's access to information that is in the public interest (note the recent AFP raid and confiscation of documents relating to the NBS

Anna | 31 May 2016  

John Carmody's reminder about the minority nature of coalition governments is timely. The narrow base of the junior member of that coalition and its disproportionate influence in Parliament and the Coalition is also worth noting. The Nationals polled around 4% of the primary vote in the House, much less than that in the Senate, yet have 10% of all the senators and about 20% of the Coalition's Senate places. They achieve that because of their preference deal with the Libs which sees the votes of all those city electors who vote Coalition above the line going on to elect Nationals senators on the second or third preferences, this big swag of Nats senators the go on to bolster the far-right conservatives in the Liberal party who were behind Abbott and are making life difficult for Turnbull. It's high time that Lin voters in our capital cities voted below the line in the Senate and skipped the Nats candidates in the Coalition ticket. This year, thanks to the change in voting procedure, they an do that easily without the necessity of filling in every square in the Senate paper..

Ginger Meggs | 01 June 2016  

The (Liberal-National Party) Coalition isn't a minority government simply because the Liberal and National Parties are separate entities. The parties are two faces of the same entity, as seen in the LNP of Queensland or the CLP in the Northern Territory. However, it might be said that the ALP is a minority government even when it is the majority, Kim Beazley Sr's cream of the working class having to accept the party as a spiritual spittoon of his dregs of the middle class in order to get other social justice legislation going. Perhaps, we should have Proportional Representation in the House also. When some ALP-like party without social adventurism emerges and starts to collect 'blue dog' labour votes, the ALP might force the dregs to migrate to the Greens.

Roy Chen Yee | 02 June 2016  

Roy, I think you've picked some poor examples to illustrate your thesis. The NT is insignificant (its population is not much more than that of Parramatta or Bankstown) and the merger in Queensland (where the population distribution between the city and the bush is atypical) was driven by a voting system that punished competition between them. Nor is your thesis that they are 'two faces of the same entity' supported by the evidence. Granted they are both fiercely anti-Labor and socially conservative, but economically and politically they are poles apart. One is committed to small government, free enterprise, and an unfettered market; the other is unashamedly agro-socialist, and dedicated to single marketing desks, reduced competition, tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, and government subsidies for rural industries. These differences have played out recently in the different ways that the car industry and the fruit growing and processing industry were treated. One was thrown to the wolves, the other got special support. I'm not going to argue the relative merits of the two cases, except to say that one was driven by the Liberal Party, the other by the National Party, and that this would have been the result whatever the actual merits of the two cases.

Ginger Meggs | 03 June 2016  

I'd suspect that your correspondent Roy Chen Yee has little experience or knowledge of Queensland. The LNP may SEEM to be the "same party" in Queensland but it is merely an opportunistic pretence. In federal elections they still contest seats as quite distinct entities (so my comment in the context of Professor Warhurst's essay) remains entirely valid. Furthermore, even at the state political level they are very fractious bedfellows and are decidedly uncongenial "allies", Furthermore, the Northern Territory hardly counts in the context of this relationship, it is so demographically distinct. in any case, so long as they refer to themselves -- as they invariably do -- as a "Coalition: then my argument is undeniable. It has been rare that the Liberals could form a government on their own: hence the legitimacy of the term "minority government", In addition, readers should not forget Barnaby Joyce's insistence, after the overthrow of Tony Abbott, that a new "agreement" had necessarily to be negotiated with Malcolm Turnbull.

John Carmody | 04 June 2016  

"Businesses that make agreements with their competitors to ... share markets ... are ... reducing choices ...." So says the ACCC website about cartels. Could the L-NP coalition be so described: "Political parties that make agreements with their competitors to ... share electorates and restrict the number of candidates standing are ... reducing choices ...."? If a diehard National Party voter sold his farm and migrated to the city because his wife wanted to be closer to their grandchildren, he would find his party telling him to put aside his 'agro-socialism' and vote for a small government Liberal. The opposite would prevail for a big city lawyer retiring to a seaside villa in Warren Truss' Wide Bay. The two parties are one cartel. When people talk about minority and coalition governments as opposed to the 'two' (not three) 'party system', they mean post-election alliances formed by parties which substantively compete against each other. The ALP does not have a no-compete deal with the Greens or the German SPD with the CDP/CSU. The 'Coalition' is one party in substance. Despite its tiny population, the NT has economic and resulting political interests (agriculture, mining) more like a state than a city.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 June 2016  

'The "Coalition" is one party in substance'? Tell that to Sophie Mirabella Roy, and see what she thinks. As for the NT having 'economic and resulting political interests ... more like a state than a city' do you realise that it contributes less than 2% to the nation's GDP? In fact, in 2015, the GSP of the NT was $22B only slightly more than the $17B GRP of the City of Parramatta. As I said, the party political arrangements of the NT are no more relevant than those of the cities of Parramatta or Bankstown. That the Liberal and National parties agree to form a coalition before the election rather than after the election does not make them any less a minority government if they mange to get a majority in Parliament. Nor does it guarantee that they will form a coalition in opposition - just look at the Victorian example. Roy, I find it's always better to work from the evidence to the conclusion rather than the other way round.

Ginger Meggsa | 09 June 2016  

As the Liberal Mirabella is no longer the sitting member for Indi, the Nationals are allowed under the coalition agreement to stand a candidate against the incumbent member, whether or not a Liberal is running. The better test is whether the Nationals fielded a candidate against her in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013. They didn’t. Tasmania’s GSP of $25b is only $3b more than NT. It contributes only 1.6% to the country's GDP. Yet, it sends 12 senators to Canberra, which makes winning some portion of the Tasmanian electorate’s favour in federal and state elections an attractive prize for a political party. But, its population of slightly over half a million is about the same as that of the Gold Coast region in Queensland, which, as such, sends no senators to Canberra. Pretending that numbers on their own make a difference is simply playing ‘damned lies and statistics’. GSP/GRP on its own is not conclusive because Tasmania’s GSP is $10b less than that of the ACT (which has about the same number of people as Canterbury-Bankstown) even if its population is larger. Population numbers on their own are not conclusive because the Gold Coast (larger in population than the NT or the ACT) isn’t represented as such in the Senate. The difference lies in the legal status of the population unit. To a political party, controlling a jurisdiction is more important than controlling a municipality because jurisdictions control more economic and political resources. Even the ACT, which is basically a municipality surrounded by national park, offers the prize of two senatorships. Whether or not the Nationals exist, or participate in a government or opposition coalition at state level, in every state is irrelevant. At the federal level, they are one cartel, effectively one party rotating control of the executive government with the federal ALP in a two-party system.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 June 2016  

OK, Roy, so we agree that the LNP and the CLP are not relevant to this debate? And that what's happening in the NT and Qld is no more relevant than what's happening in Tasmania, the ACT, and the Gold Coast?

Ginger Meggs | 10 June 2016  

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