Hung parliament will get short shrift from voters

BOB Katter wants a return of tariffs, Rob Oakeshott wants to overturn the party system.

And Tony Windsor increasingly sounds as if he’d like another election.

After seven decades, Australians woke up on Sunday morning to the phenomenon of a hung federal parliament. Like Ali Babas outside the cave, ready to load up their camels, the three independents who will decide Australia’s next federal government have put in their wish lists.
Hung parliaments, or parliaments where the governing party fails to control a clear majority of seats, are rare in Australia’s federal government. This says a lot about the Australian electoral system, and also the preference of Australian voters for decisive government at a national level, rather than uncertain or conciliatory government.

For decades, Australians have tolerated a divided or non-majority Senate as a check on government. At times, minority government has operated successfully in the more parochial setting of state parliaments. But, as history shows, they easily tire of a House of Representatives where uncertainty rules.

Three examples, 1928-29, 1930-31 and 1940-43, illustrate the point. In each of these periods of the federal parliament, the government’s parliamentary majority collapsed mid-term. In each case, Australians voted strongly for the alternative party at the elections that followed.

In the period between 1928 and 1943, Australia experienced just one long period of stable, efficient government with prime minster Joe Lyons, from January 1932 until his death in office in April 1939.

Before and after Lyons, there were deep party divisions that left both Labor and conservative governments unable to command the numbers in the lower house for a full term.

At the 1928 election, Stanley Bruce retained government for the Nationalists. Labor had not won an election federally since prime minister Billy Hughes had split with Labor during World War I and linked up with the conservatives to form the Nationalists. However, by 1928, the conservative side of politics was full of smouldering divisions.

Hughes had been forced to step down as prime minister in favour of Bruce in early 1923. The Nationalists, to govern, needed to form a coalition with Earle Page’s Country Party. The Country Party refused to accept Hughes as PM. Thereafter, Hughes became a party malcontent ready for revenge. By 1928, the Country Party was also divided.

In September 1929, less than a year after the election, Hughes and five other Nationalists joined Labor to defeat a government bill. Having lost on the floor of the house, Bruce called an election. Labor, led by Jim Scullin, won it in a landslide, giving Labor its first win in a federal election since 1914.

But Labor was soon even more divided than the Nationalists.

The financial situation of both state and federal governments was parlous after years of heavy borrowings.

Within days of Scullin taking office, the Wall Street stockmarket crashed and ushered in the Depression. By 1930, Scullin’s handsome Labor majority had splintered into Labor and Lang Labor. Warren Denning recorded in Caucus Crisis how "so terrific became the tumult [in caucus] that all Parliament House was aware of it", even from behind padded doors.

In early 1931, Scullin’s senior minister Lyons and a handful of his Labor colleagues left the Scullin government and the Labor Party and joined the conservatives to form the United Australia Party. Relations worsened between Labor and the Lang Laborites, in Canberra led by Jack Beasley.

In November 1931, Lang Labor voted with the UAP to defeat the Scullin government in the house, forcing an early election. At that election, Lyons and the UAP won a landslide victory.

The Lyons government ended on Good Friday 1939 when Lyons died in office. After seven years, and many losses from the front bench, the UAP and its Country Party colleagues were an exhausted team. As testament to this, Robert Menzies beat the ageing Hughes by just one vote to emerge as the new UAP leader.

At the 1940 election, the Menzies government was returned as a minority government, hanging on with the support of two conservative independents from Victoria. While the Labor vote remained split between John Curtin’s Labor and Lang Labor, the latter was by then a diminishing force.

In August 1941, Menzies lost the confidence of his party and resigned. Arthur Fadden replaced Menzies as leader but, within weeks, had lost control of parliament. Curtin became the new PM on October 7.

In the wartime environment, there was no immediate election. Curtin governed without incident until the August 1943 election when, once again, Australians opted to return a strong majority government.

Labor won in a landslide.

So, how long this time will Australians be satisfied with minority, or uncertain, rule? Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, take note.

Anne Henderson is deputy director of the Sydney Institute.

Article published in The Australian

'2012