One-party government is no longer the rule

Tough times call for more sensible politics, but it’s hard for some to break old habits. [31 December 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Will Hodgman in campaign mode in October. He says he won’t enter any alliance to form government, but in the long run he won’t have a choice. AAP IMAGE: David Beniuk

In the cauldron of politics, good policy gets pushed to the side. Important issues like climate and refugees get twisted and trivialised, and unimportant things like minority governments are made to seem like they’re causing the sky to fall in.

For years, the “problem” of minority government has dominated the Tasmanian political debate. Until the September election it was the same in Canberra, where Julia Gillard’s government relied on the votes of independents to survive.

When former premier David Bartlett made a deal with the Greens to form government in 2010, one-party rule became the centrepiece of attacks on the government by Will Hodgman’s Liberals. The reason would have to be electoral gain. It certainly wasn’t good policy.

Hodgman’s argument, and Tony Abbott’s about the Gillard government, is that parties which get together to gain a majority in Parliament are denying the will of the voters because they didn’t secure a majority in their own right, and that such governments are inherently unstable.

They’re missing something important here. In the federal sphere, in sharp contrast to Labor which has nearly always governed in its own right, the Liberals and their predecessors have never achieved power by themselves. They’ve always been in coalitions of two or more parties.

Ironically, Abbott currently leads a party without a parliamentary majority. His Liberal Party holds 58 out of 150 House of Representatives seats. It won government thanks to a coalition with the National Party and National-Liberal parties based in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

It’s true that unlike Labor and the Greens, these conservative parties have always gone into elections as coalitions, and the partnerships have been solid since World War II (though very flaky before then). But they remain separate parties, with distinct agendas.

Will Hodgman says he won’t enter any alliance in Tasmania, but that hasn’t always been the case. The Liberals held office in the mid-1990s with the help of the Greens, as did Labor before that. In each case Tasmania benefited from forward-thinking, progressive legislation. But on both occasions the Greens stayed out of government, which had a destabilising effect.

Until the start of the present government, the Greens had always stood apart from the major parties, even when in alliances. They saw Labor and Liberal attitudes to the natural environment as primitive and destructive and their policies as indistinguishable from each other.

For their part, both Labor and the Liberals have treated the Greens as economy-destroying pariahs with an impossibly idealistic agenda and a complete inability to compromise, making them difficult allies in government. But in 2010 under Nick McKim, the Greens took a different turn.

Hodgman wears his position on one-party government as a badge of honour, but in 2010 it didn’t seem so honourable. Because he refused to negotiate with the Greens when the election produced a hung parliament, Tasmania faced a constitutional crisis and potentially a second election.

Labor ended the crisis by taking on the alliance. It was never the comfortable fit we’ve become used to between the Liberals and the Nationals in Canberra, but it was a heck of a lot better than another election and probably another hung parliament. When this happens, parties must negotiate.

When McKim joined David Bartlett’s cabinet in April 2010, it was a historic departure for the Greens, as it was for Labor. He was joined there by his deputy, Cassy O’Connor, later in the same year. Both took on multiple portfolios and became key players in the Giddings government.

Now Lara Giddings, under pressure from Hodgman’s campaign and sniping from anti-Green elements in her own party, seeks to distance herself from her Green allies. Which is a pity, because for all its difficulties the partnership can claim some significant successes.

One of these successes was an improbable, almost miraculous forest peace agreement. Before the ink was dry, veteran Green campaigners, already uneasy about the new, accommodating practices of McKim, O’Connor and their colleagues, were attacking the agreement as a sell-out.

Sharing their outrage on the opposite side were rusted-on anti-Greens such as renegade Labor MP Brenton Best and Liberal MLC Paul Harriss. For his part, Will Hodgman never looked angrier than when he stood up in parliament and vowed to tear up the agreement.

These people grew up with the forest wars, and are finding it hard to let go. But they’re headed towards a dead end. We have to run with the deal and see where it takes us because the alternative is a return to the old order: anger, frustration, occasional violence, and a dying forest industry.

We’re better off, too, for the Labor-Green alliance that made possible not just the forest deal, but a raft of other environment and energy measures, notable among them the “Climate Smart” strategy released last month after years of false starts and extensive community consultation.

The new climate strategy will be a matter of pride for our island community if and when it is fully implemented. Its actions should have been under way years ago, but the process has stalled because climate policy has not had the cross-party commitment it deserves.

Opposition environment spokesman Matthew Groom says the Liberals will start afresh with their own climate program, thanks very much. Given the time that’s passed and the effort that so many people have put into the current strategy, such a reinvention of the wheel is the last thing we need.

Will Hodgman may manage an absolute majority next time, but it’s not going to bring him or us any long-term security. As the years pass and climate, energy and environmental issues become ever more pressing, the need to call a halt to such foolish party posturing becomes more obvious.

Many voters know the truth of this, and it’s why the Greens aren’t going away. Coalitions of parties are the new norm, and all of us – especially Labor and the Liberals – need to get used to it.

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