Didn’t anyone teach our leaders how to share?

Past attempts at cooperative government have ended in failure, but now we have a confident Green party prepared to negotiate its way into government. For the sake of real (as opposed to fake) environmental and energy policy, it’s to be hoped that things will turn out differently this time. [13 April 2010 | Peter Boyer]

<strong>Parliamentary democracy:</strong> The new Tasmanian government will be decided on the floor of the House of Assembly.

Parliamentary democracy: The new Tasmanian government will be decided on the floor of the House of Assembly.

Democracy, the world’s most complex system of government, can be truly irritating, especially for those who see leadership as a matter of getting your own way. For David Bartlett and Will Hodgman, the post-election process seems to have been a real bother.

It can’t have been a lot better for Nick McKim, who having seen his party receive its highest-ever vote was pointedly ignored by the leaders of both major parties. But at least he had the satisfaction of getting some grudging recognition at the end of it all.

The reasons for the stand-off must have eluded many voters. According to the rules, a simple majority of the 25-seat House of Assembly — at least 13 members — is needed to decide who can govern and who can’t. With neither Labor nor Liberal able to muster more than 10 votes, it made no sense for either major party, let alone both of them, to leave the Greens out in the cold.

Yet both Hodgman and Bartlett, apparently independently, declared that’s what they would do. Hodgman defied reason to claim that he could and would hold office without any other party’s involvement. Bartlett simply gave up and sought to step down.

McKim’s last-gasp support for Labor — probably not an influence on the Governor’s decision to pursue a parliamentary solution — certainly didn’t please the Opposition Leader, but it also seemed, for a while at least, to have thrown Bartlett off his stride. The Bartlett-Hodgman tactic of deliberately ignoring the Greens was a miscalculation. If the government that emerges turns out to be at least tolerable to participants and electors, it’s a tactic that will likely haunt Will Hodgman over the course of this 47th Tasmanian government.

Aside from showing contempt for the election outcome, the biggest mistake of the major parties has been to overlook the gradually rising numbers of electors supporting environmental issues, a trend that now extends over decades. Despite the one-in-five vote for the Greens, both the Labor government and the Liberal opposition have treated environmental policy as unimportant in the scheme of things. They’re wrong, of course, but they still don’t seem to see it.

The spectacle of the two major-party leaders dancing around each other showed they and their back-room advisers have not grasped that the old, familiar alignments no longer meet electors’ needs in a new Tasmanian political order. The fact that both Will Hodgman and David Bartlett didn’t see this coming — that they closed their eyes to the electoral outcome by seeking to redefine what voters really wanted — shows that they still have much to learn about democratic leadership.

They can’t say they’ve had no warning. The roots of this change go back as far as the late 1960s with the end of decades of Labor domination and the election of Angus Bethune’s Liberals — in coalition with a third party represented by one man, Kevin Lyons.

Then as now, change was in the air. Within the short term of the Bethune government (another reforming minority government, by the way), the bitter campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder spawned a new challenge to the Labor-Liberal divide: the world’s first environmental party, the United Tasmania Group, later to morph into the Greens.

Through the 1970s the established parties pointedly ignored the newcomers, but the stand-off became outright hostility with the Gordon-below-Franklin dam controversy and the entry of Bob Brown into the Tasmanian parliament in 1983. The High Court decision to stop the dam ensured that Gray’s premiership was dominated by anti-environmental obsession and a belief that Tasmania’s future prosperity was under threat from the Greens under Brown. (No-one could say politics lacked colour in the 1980s.)

Michael Field, having just ousted Neil Batt as Labor leader, was the new kid on the block in 1989 when Robin Gray lost his outright majority — a result of the Greens winning five seats in the 35-member House of Assembly. With the Governor’s rejection of Gray’s request for another election, Field was a picture of delight as he announced, alongside Bob Brown, a new era in Tasmanian politics: an “accord” under which Labor would govern with Green support.

By one measure – innovative legislation including freedom-of-information laws – the two years of the Labor-Green Accord were a success. By another, stable government, the Accord didn’t work, largely because the Greens had no formal place in government structure and processes. When the Greens withdrew amid acrimony in 1991, Michael Field became a new recruit to the anti-Green forces.

In 1996, the Greens under Christine Milne agreed to support Tony Rundle’s minority Liberals. As before, the agreement produced long-needed reforms including liberalised homosexuality laws, but again it collapsed in anger when Rundle bowed to Labor and business pressure to shrink the size of parliament, making it harder for small-party candidates to secure a quota for election.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why previous minority governments involving the Greens ended prematurely. In both cases the Greens agreed to stay outside the core government structure. Without access to cabinet deliberations, they were bound to fall out with their major party colleagues.

We keep seeing these early attempts at minority government in terms not of their legislative successes but their inglorious terminations — just as the major party leaders, seeking power in their own right, want us to see them. The biggest losers have been us, the electors. A continuing stand-off guarantees long-term instability and repeated failure to address environmental imperatives.

Perhaps 2010 will be different. Today, the need for comprehensive energy and environmental policy as a central plank of government is clear to all who think about it. Nick McKim says he wants the Greens to be part of the new government. All it takes is a Labor (or Liberal) leader prepared to share the government platform in a coalition, both sides aware of the need for strong energy and environmental policy, and both willing to work together over a full term. That’s not so hard, is it?

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