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In the minority: what Tasmania’s election might mean for democracy and health

Introduction by Croakey: Liberal Premier Jeremy Rockliff, who called the recent Tasmanian election to clear up what he described as the “chaos” of minority government, now has to negotiate what one policy analyst has described as “a shaky minority that will be lucky to last longer than 18 months”.

The result has prompted much talk, as usual, about the “problems” of minority government and the challenges of working with a coalition or cross bench, and the implications for effective government.

It also raises questions about the implications for health and public interest advocacy. For many, minority or broader coalition governments do not loom as a problem but rather are “a major improvement for Australia’s democracy”, if they seek to be productive, and not disruptive.

That was a strong verdict from a range of people whose views Croakey has canvassed this week, including former federal MP Tony Windsor, whose vote was key to the survival of the Gillard Government. He was “gobsmacked” that Tasmanian Labor had not sought to build a coalition this week.

Meanwhile, a public health researcher in lutruwita/Tasmania, Professor Martin Hensher, offers a smorgasbord of tips on working with minority governments to achieve better health policy outcomes.

Also see the first article in this two-part series, by Professor Michael Moore: Sharing some expert advice on working with minority governments to advance public health.


Pros and cons

Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), University of Queensland, and Co-Chair of Croakey Health Media

Minority governments can be productive if they can find common ground and work together for better outcomes. If the players within a minority government can collaborate, they could bring out the best of each other.

The flip side of this, is that they do not agree on some aspects of policy, their disagreement may cause stalls on policy finalisation, funding decisions, and actions.


Major parties are not listening

Tony Windsor, former Independent federal and NSW MP

I was in the New South Wales and Australian parliaments for a total of 22 years and involved in two hung parliaments: the first in NSW where my vote allowed the Greiner Liberal Government to govern and then, in Canberra, where a number of independents gave stability to Julia Gillard to form a Labor Government.

Both these governments worked effectively for their full term. In my view, a lot of good things happened and some bad things were prevented from happening so the system does work. More legislation was passed during the Gillard Government than in any other. That’s not to say that, just because you pass new laws, you are a good government but it shows things can be done. Claiming that minority government gets nothing done is a blatant lie.

Our founding fathers actually developed a system where representatives of various areas went off to various parliaments to make decisions for the people they represented. Over the decades that’s obviously been corrupted by the parties. I think we need to step back to what was intended, away from the two party system, one of the failures of the Westminster system, which is dominated by this ‘two dogs barking’ approach of trying to score political points.

The media play a part in this too: some elements struggle with a third player in field, it’s much simpler to comment when you just have two dogs barking.

Governing with a minority government is about negotiating, about major parties recognising that not everything they put before the electorate is endorsed by everyone.

There has to be compromise and I think Tasmania could take the lead here in showing the way because we are going to see more and more minority government as people continue to lose faith in the major parties.

If a government fails to get something up on the floor of the Parliament, it is seen as a vote of no confidence. There’s nothing wrong with failure, we all fail, but it’s good to see various issues and policies actually debated. Minority government gets debate out of the back rooms.

We’re seeing this at the moment in the Federal Parliament with the Independents: they are really showing a different way of working, for example with the Migration Amendment (Removal and Other Measures) Bill 2024 and national integrity issues, the style and tone of the debate is different.

One of the things we will start to see is the two parties talking to each other in backrooms about how to stop the emergence of other parties and people, and I think we might see that reflected in electoral laws or in relation to donation regulation where they will try to impose a system where the two parties are the preferred option.

For advocates worried they will need more resources to try to influence policy with more parties and cross-benchers, if there’s a sense in the community that the Parliament actually wants to address some of these significant issues, you’ll see a lot of people come out and support that. If they see serious intent versus playing politics, they will volunteer their services.

It may require more resources to negotiate with more people but look at the waste of resources that happens with a majority government: it’s all dressage and make-up, creating differences, spin-doctoring. Resources need to be concentrated on the issues of the day, not the politics of the day.

One of the things I made plain with the Gillard Government was: ‘if you hurry me, the answer is no’. I don’t care what history says about how fast the Parliament has to be working, because governments will always bring things on and say it’s urgent. My answer was, ‘if you rush, the answer is no’, and they didn’t rush me after that.

In the Tasmanian context, I’m gobsmacked that the Labor Party has walked away from the opportunity to form a government. I would have thought it would have considered that the majority of people who have been elected probably don’t agree with Premier Rockliff, so it’s going to be difficult for him.

Former Labor leader Rebecca White’s speech on election night indicated a readiness to sit down and negotiate so I don’t know what happened. It seems to me they’re taking a long-term political view: let whatever happen to Rockliff and then capitalise on that later on.

Well ‘later on’ for the people of Tasmania is not a good idea. They’re ‘now’ people, they’ve just had an election to determine that.

The major parties are all saying ‘we’re hearing the message’ but they’re not. The message from the election was ‘we want people to work together, not work apart’.


Shifting power

Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute

We are really let down with our political analysis in Australia because we are presented with this binary of ‘stable majority government’ or ‘unstable minority government’.

The most common thing in Australia, even when there is a party with a majority in the lower house, is for that party to have to negotiate with minor parties and independents in the Senate.

So the concern that, under a minority government scenario, the government of the day needs to consult with MPs from another party to make a law, is actually the norm, it is the way Australian policy is made.

The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, it doesn’t mention a Prime Minister. It tells us how to elect people and what powers they will have but it is silent on what kind of Parliament we should elect. And it tells us the numbers in the upper houses are just as important as the lower houses: that’s why ACT Senator David Pocock is so busy, why Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie is so important, why the Greens are so important.

So why the conniptions at the prospect of a government that has a minority in the lower house, and has to negotiate with independent crossbenchers there?

The major political parties would prefer voters think of them as the only choice. There are many in the media who would prefer to ask the thoughts of just two people, the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.

The most powerful industries in the country, who have spent decades building up relationships with the major parties, don’t want to see the people that they feel they have privileged access to then having to go off and negotiate with independents, whoever they might be.

It’s a shift in power for people who, under a majority government, have privileged access to the incumbents; the more independents and minor parties there are, the less powerful are their activities, the less significant their access.

So there are a hell of a lot of people who have got a hell of a lot invested in a status quo view of the world, even though that view isn’t very accurate because around the world minority government is the most common formulation of parliamentary democracy.

The ACT has been in so-called ‘chaotic minority government’ for years. And, as my tweet noted, the minority Gillard Government was very successful in passing legislation, including an NDIS scheme that came with a new tax, a carbon price, and a Royal Commission into the role of churches in sexual abuse. If you just count the legislation passed, it was the opposite of chaos, it was incredibly productive.

How was that the case?

I would say there is a very simple answer. In order for the Gillard Government to pass legislation in the lower house, it needed to negotiate with Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and the Greens’ Adam Bandt before it even introduced the bill to the House.

Usually we have this ‘performance art’, where the Prime Minister of the day thunders ‘I have a mandate, I will introduce the bill I want to introduce’, and then they have a big public fight with the crossbench in the Senate to make a law.

Well it turned out that actually have a polite quiet chat was far more productive.

Because minority government actually is far more democratic, with far more parties having a real say over the final shape of legislation.

The Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff called an early election because of what he called the “chaos” of minority government. Under that thinking, which I don’t agree with, he has brought on more chaos for himself so it’s an interesting question as to why he is now so keen to be Premier in one.

It was telling that former Tasmanian Labor leader Rebecca White said, in her election night speech, that Tasmania will likely “continue to elect minority governments”, particularly with a 35 seat Parliament. So for parties to say they will never do a deal with another party, they’re saying ‘we’d rather be in opposition’, that is, that their party identity matters more to them than being in government.


Community engagement is critical

Professor Martin Hensher, the Henry Baldwin Professorial Research Fellow in Health Systems Sustainability at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, based at the University of Tasmania

Q: Tips for health advocates to engage effectively with a minority government?

A: If you were frustrated by your (in)ability to influence a majority government, you’d better get ready for everything to shift down a gear in minority…

If Ministers have carried over from a previous minority government, they will be a bit shaken, probably struggling to adjust to new realities, and over-eager to pretend that they are still in sole charge. Remember that they are not; humour them, but don’t forget that a minority government can implode in a single day.

Don’t forget the Opposition and all the other parties/independents. They could be in charge sooner than you think – or could be in a position to leverage a crucial policy change. Split your efforts wisely and transparently across all parties/groups.

Remember that new MPs (both independents and from the main parties) often have a very limited understanding of the health system, and of who does what across Commonwealth/state and territory/private sectors.

Much time is often wasted on trying to force state and territory solutions to Commonwealth problems…help to educate and inform on this.

Broadly, use this opportunity to lobby for robust policy processes to solve key problems – using deliberative democracy (for example, citizens juries), community involvement, strong technical policy development by public servants.

Don’t be beguiled by the apparently easy win of an announceable in your space, horse-traded for an Independent’s support for another policy. Persuade ministers of the benefits of a good policy process that will command wide public and political support.

Q: Tips on what not to do?

A: Don’t be distracted by shiny baubles today – keep your eye on the long game.

Don’t let the major party in a minority government pretend it has a mandate for its election policy platform – it doesn’t, those policies were (by definition) rejected by a majority of voters. Everything is potentially up for negotiation.

If you are advising Independent MPs: never guarantee supply – whatever they might offer you in exchange. The Budget is the most important thing a Government does – why on earth would you sign them a blank cheque?

Never get involved (or even appear to have become involved) in factional struggles. Ever. If you have members/board directors who are trying to make you – fire them.

Q: Implications for health advocates and advocacy (will it take more work and resources)?

A: You can add a lot of value to policy-making in a minority government scenario, by using your networks to deliver community engagement, advice etc – but this is hard work, and you will need to remain in dialogue with all political parties/MPs. So this probably will require greater time and effort.

Push governments and others to set up well-resourced policy development processes to be run by the state service, but with strong engagement strategies – the public service probably has greater resources than you, and this is the kind of work public servants really want to do (problem solving, evidence-based, deliberative etc).

Don’t be surprised to find that some independent MPs may have real trouble accepting concepts that seem obvious to health advocates – for example, the role of social and commercial determinants of health, health inequities etc. Think about how to win them over without compromising key positions.

Q: Any experiences or observations with working with minority governments?

A: Minority governments can actually provide an opportunity for more careful and deliberative policy making.

Tip-toeing through the minefield of minority or coalition means that governments need robust, inclusive planning and policy-making processes that bring communities and MPs with them – there is no room for brain farts and government by announcement when in minority. Thoughtful ministers recognise this, and can often be more likely to set up genuinely inclusive policy processes as a result.

Q: Do you agree with the view put forward by some that minority governments will become more common in Australia? If so, will this be a positive or negative for public health?

A: I would agree with the proposition that governments achieving a clear majority may become less common in Australia. I’m not so sure that governing from minority will become a trend – it seems likely to be a recipe for inertia and frustration.

Minority government will only be positive for public health if governments decide to follow more inclusive, deliberative policy processes to ensure that their policies are broadly accepted. Small-target, risk-averse approaches to minority government are likely to avoid tackling key public health challenges, avoid confrontation with health-damaging industries and stakeholders, and perpetuate the status quo.

However, I suspect over the next few years we will act