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Close enough could be good enough

Far from being a disaster in New South Wales, minority government could bring lasting reforms

David Clune 9 March 2019 1319 words

Hung parliament? Labor leader Michael Daley campaigning in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield on 27 February. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

Will this month’s NSW election produce a hung parliament? If it does — and the possibility is beginning to dominate coverage of the campaign — it will be the first time since the 1991 election that neither Labor nor the Coalition has won a majority. The parliament that resulted, which sat from 1991 to 1995, offers lessons that all sides of politics should bear in mind.

Three years before that election, in 1988, Nick Greiner led the Coalition to a landslide victory after twelve years of Labor government. Greiner was an effective opposition leader and a major policy reformer whose neoliberal program went on to dominate state and federal politics under both major parties for decades. But he had a blind spot as premier: although he was determined to implement his reform agenda he gave a low priority to selling it to voters. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, carefully thought-out policy didn’t equal good electoral politics.

Greiner called an early election in May 1991 expecting to be returned comfortably. Instead, with forty-nine of parliament’s ninety-nine seats, he ended up in a minority. Labor had forty-six seats, and the other four had been won by independents. The government’s position deteriorated further the following year, when it lost a by-election to Labor in January and then former Liberal education minister Terry Metherell resigned to become an independent in April.

To stay in office, Greiner had to do a deal with the independents. He had little trouble with former National Tony Windsor, who had run because he didn’t win preselection in Tamworth. In those days, Windsor was not as hostile to the Nationals as he later became; in return for a series of concessions to his electorate, he was a basically reliable vote for the Coalition.

Leaving aside the disenchanted Liberal Metherell, the other independents — John Hatton (South Coast), Peter Macdonald (Manly) and Clover Moore (Bligh, later Sydney) — were an entirely different proposition. Hatton, who had won his semi-rural seat from the Liberals in 1973, was basically old-fashioned Labor left in his beliefs, although he became increasingly disillusioned with the way Labor operated in parliament. He was a man of rigid integrity with a somewhat naive belief in the capacity of hard work and good intentions to solve all problems, and his reputation for honesty and taking up causes attracted many aggrieved citizens. Moore and Macdonald, from the new left, were interested in social issues and the environment. Styling themselves the unaligned independents, the trio combined to extract major reforms from the Coalition.

After much tough negotiation, an agreement was signed with Greiner. In return for his pledge to implement a charter of reform, the independents undertook to vote with the government on appropriation and supply bills and motions of no-confidence, except where “corruption or gross maladministration” were involved. Otherwise, they were free to vote as they saw fit.

The unaligned independents decided to support Greiner because he had the largest number of MPs in the Legislative Assembly. In the event that the Coalition (defined to include Windsor) had fewer MPs than Labor and “satisfactory government” was not being provided, the independents reserved the right to withdraw support. An agreement was signed with Labor to allow the continued implementation of the charter of reform if they switched sides.

How did it work in practice? The reforms in the charter fell into two broad categories. The first, intended to introduce more open and accountable government, produced mixed results — which wasn’t surprising given the broad scope of the issues tackled. But a number of long-lasting reforms were introduced, including whistleblowers’ protection legislation and the creation of the Legal Services Commission, an independent statutory body that deals with complaints about lawyers. The independence of the auditor-general, the ombudsman and the judiciary was strengthened, and a fixed four-year parliamentary term introduced.

The other set of reforms involved the functioning of the Legislative Assembly. Here, the independents were spectacularly successful. The Assembly reverted to a situation that Henry Parkes (premier in nineteenth-century New South Wales for a cumulative total of just under twelve years) would have recognised, with the house rather than the government in control of proceedings. Debate was unrestricted, and the traditional end-of-session rush of bills was banned. Non-government MPs were able to introduce and sometimes pass bills and motions. Committees multiplied. Bills were amended whether the government approved or not.

Did this frustrate the government’s mandate and disrupt the legislative process? Most of the Coalition’s market-liberal agenda was passed, although the unaligned independents were not ideologically sympathetic. Bills were carefully scrutinised and in some cases heavily amended, but this didn’t amount to obstruction for its own sake. In many cases, better legislation emerged, as even the government, on occasion, admitted. Greiner had cause for some complaint, but not much: 99 per cent of government amendments to bills were successful compared with 50 per cent of those moved by Labor.

Did the hung parliament bring political instability? After signing the charter of reform, the Coalition was securely in office, barring extraordinary circumstances and while it had more seats than Labor. It was not in complete control of the agenda, but this didn’t mean that it had a tenuous hold on power or that it was unable to govern effectively.

Then came extraordinary circumstances. In a ham-fisted attempt to regain Terry Metherell’s safe Liberal seat, the government appointed him to a senior public service position. When the Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated the appointment and found that Greiner had acted corruptly, the unaligned independents insisted he resign or they would bring the government down. Greiner did so reluctantly, and was replaced by John Fahey. Although the Court of Appeal subsequently overturned the corruption finding, the unaligned independents’ demand was based on the unarguable facts that ICAC had exposed about the Metherell appointment. Their point was that the evidence revealed an improper bargain — a job for a seat — that necessitated Greiner’s departure.

Metherell’s appointment would have been unwise at the best of times. For a government whose tenure depended on the support of MPs who had campaigned against corruption and maladministration it was a catastrophic miscalculation. Yet the independents didn’t use the Metherell affair to force the government from office; the transition to Fahey was relatively seamless and the political process was not destabilised. Overall, independent control of the Assembly may have made life politically more difficult for Greiner and Fahey, but it didn’t prevent stable government.

Hatton, Macdonald and Moore’s handling of the balance of power is something of a template for others who may be in a similar situation. In keeping with the Westminster tradition they recognised that the party with the majority of seats in the lower house should form the government. Although all three were more sympathetic to Labor, they supported the Coalition. This criterion is much more sensible than referring to the two-party-preferred vote.

In fact, the two-party vote has always been an artificial construct. It can be useful in analysing results, but it has flaws and produces inaccuracies. Most obviously of all, it is premised on the idea of politics as a two-horse race. This has never been the case, and it is even more unrealistic with the recent rise of independents and minor parties. And it is even less useful under an optional preferential system — which New South Wales uses — in which many voters decline to allocate preferences.

Between 1991 and 1995 the mechanism of a memorandum of understanding with the government ensured stability and enabled the unaligned independents to advance a carefully thought-out agenda that put the interests of the state first. There was no grandstanding, pursuit of petty local concerns or horsetrading.

If a minority government results from the poll on 23 March, and if those holding the balance of power act as Hatton, Macdonald and Moore did, it may not be a bad outcome for New South Wales. •

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Spending strategically: Elizabeth Reid discusses International Women’s Year preparations with prime minister Gough Whitlam and the secretary of the Department of the Media, James Oswin, in 1974. Malcolm Lindsay/Australian Information Service/National Library of Australia

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