Crispin Hull / Is a Minority Government Preferable?

grayscale photography of building

Labor and the nation would have been better off with a hung Parliament and minority government. That way, Labor would have been saved from itself.

Last week’s unilateral decision to cut the advisory staff of independents and minor parties from four to one, is an example of a decision a minority government would not have made.

Labor cannot get legislation through the Senate without their vote. To alienate them in such a directed, personal way was plain stupid and caused by the arrogance of majority government.

Did 2022 Labor forget or not learn from history? Anthony Albanese’s win was just the fourth time Labor has won from Opposition since World War. And two of the three previous winning Labor Governments were quickly destroyed by the Senate.

The Senate denied Gough Whitlam Supply and most of his legislative agenda and he could no longer govern. Kevin Rudd’s legislation to deal with climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, was defeated in the Senate by a combined Coalition-Green vote – the Greens destroying the good in the pursuit of the elusive perfect.

Rudd lost the prime ministership before the term was out.

The Senate can make or break governments, especially Labor governments. A reformist government has to get good things done. Invariably that requires Senate agreement for the big-ticket items. Conservative governments, on the other hand, of their nature, do not do big-ticket items.

Labor should be helping and accommodating the independents and minor parties, not pulling out their fingernails.

The slap in the face to the half dozen “teal” independents is inexplicable. They took seats from the Liberals that Labor could never hope to win. Labor needs them to help keep the Liberals out.

Labor cited savings needed to improve the Budget as the reason for the cut. It was a piddling $4 million. And it invites the riposte: if the Budget is in such a poor condition why on earth continue with the Coalition’s tax cuts for the rich? There are billions of dollars there for the tacking.

And this will be the call every time Labor tries to impose some economies in government spending. Why permit a Reagan-Thatcher style flat-tax regime which drives austerity and hardship unameliorated by an illusory trickle-down myths? The money from tax cuts flows no further than the hip pocket.

Taking the cuts back would have zero political cost. High-income people are either going to vote Coalition anyway, or to the extent that they vote Labor, they do it for moral reasons, not the money.

Albanese has said that there was an expectation that the tax cuts would go ahead, so they should. But, surely, there was also an expectation among independents and the minor parties that they would have similar support staff as in the previous Parliament.

If quickly reversed, Labor might recover. Its position in the Senate is at least workable. With the Greens and new Independent ACT Senator David Pocock (or one of the Jacqui Lambie Network senators), it can get legislation through.

Imagine, though, if Liberal ACT Senator Zed Seselja had not shot himself so badly in the left foot that he toppled over and for the first time in 50 years the Liberals did not get one of the two ACT seats. If Seselja had won, Labor would have been at the mercy of the Coalition, Lambie, One Nation and United Australia senators.

Lessons: do not underestimate or upset the minor parties and independents, and beware the Senate.

Speaking of the Senate, a month down the track, the election count is complete. The count has revealed a massive disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Australians in deciding who would get the critical last Senate seat in every state – seats that decide the fate of all of contentious legislation.

The result in Victoria is an instructive example. The result was two Coalition, two Labor; one Green and one United Australia Party. The UAP got just 4 per cent of the vote.

The last seat was a fight between a Liberal, UAP, Legalise Cannabis and One Nation.

Labor got 31.5 per cent of the vote. Given the quota for a seat is slightly under 14.3 it deserved two seats. That accounts for 14.3 times 2 or 28.6 of the vote, leaving an over-quota of a tad under three percent, the equivalent of more than 100,000 votes. To which candidate did that vote go?

Alas, nearly all of it exhausted. This is because the Labor Party’s how-to-vote card in Victoria advised voters to vote for just six parties above the line, with Labor obviously first and Greens second. The how-to-vote card did not contain One Nation, Liberal, UAP or Cannabis.

So, in effect, Labor voters had no say as to which of these would get the last seat.

My guess is that most Labor voters would have preferred the Cannabis candidate to any of the other three, and that candidate would have been more likely to support a Labor agenda in the Senate.

But Labor was too scared to put Cannabis on its how-to-vote card. If it had, the 1.2 million Labor votes in Victoria would have flowed to the Cannabis candidate (at a discount that accounts for the first two elected Labor senators). It would have seen One Nation and the UAP excluded before the Cannabis candidate who would then have fought it out with the remaining Liberal.

My guess is that many Labor voters would have preferred virtually anyone, even a Liberal, to UAP or One Nation.

But their choice was taken away by the myth that numbering just six boxes above the line is enough. Not so. In every state the will of people who voted for one or other of the major parties was truncated because their how-to-vote cards did not allocate a preference for the last few contenders for the last seat.

The instruction to voters should be to number ALL squares either above the line or below the line. When the fate of the nation’s government is at stake a few minutes effort is not much to ask.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 28 June 2022.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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