Inside Story

South Australia’s cabinet experiment

Minority government in South Australia produced a novel solution that challenged the way the Westminster system has worked in Australia, writes Norman Abjorensen

Norman Abjorensen 3 September 2010 1819 words

Cut and paste: SA premier Mike Rann’s decision to appoint non-party cabinet ministers proved a masterstroke. John Goodridge/Flickr

AUSTRALIA’s political culture is intensely adversarial, so it is scarcely surprising that calls for a federal power-sharing arrangement between the two major parties were ignored in the days after the federal election. But the pattern hasn’t been entirely undisturbed, and as the new federal parliament enters uncharted waters at least one experiment in government is worth recalling.

In 2002, in a rare departure from the uncompromising adversarial model, the South Australian premier, Mike Rann, appointed two non-Labor members to his Labor cabinet. The move itself was highly unusual, but was perhaps most significant for its effective rewriting of the Westminster model of governent.

The 2002 South Australian election left neither major party with a majority in the forty-seven-seat House of Assembly – Labor won twenty-three seats, the Liberals twenty, independents three and one seat went to the Nationals. The Liberal Party had been in office since 1993, but since the 1997 election a series of defections had forced the government to rely on three independents and a lone National. As political scientist Haydon Manning noted at the time, volatility was becoming the norm in South Australia – in the previous decade and a half the state had experienced only four years of government by a party able to command a clear majority on the floor of the lower house of parliament.

Although they had lost seats, the Liberals had expected to retain office with continued support from the independents. But this expectation was shattered when Peter Lewis, an independent who had previously been a Liberal, announced his support for Labor. In return, Labor pledged significant changes in the operation of government, and promised a conference to consider constitutional reforms including citizen-initiated referendums, and action to address “the urgent needs of rural South Australia.” Strangely, the Liberals had earlier signed the same compact with Lewis.

Despite this unexpected defection, Liberal premier Rob Kerin sought to retain government, opting to test the numbers on the floor of parliament. But he lost a confidence vote when Bob Such, a former Liberal minister turned independent, abstained, presumably to enable a clear vote rather than have the Speaker use his casting vote. Labor took office with Lewis as Speaker. Both Such and Lewis said their actions were motivated by the need for stable government.

Lewis proved to be highly erratic, and the Rann government, exploring other ways of shoring up its numbers, opened talks with the independents. In December 2002, Rann announced that he had created a new cabinet portfolio – trade and regional development – for the independent member for Mount Gambier, Rory McEwen, a former member of the Liberal Party who had won his seat in 1997 after missing out on party preselection. Not only did the appointment catch the Liberals unawares, especially since McEwen had supported Kerin in the confidence vote, but cabinet and the Labor caucus were also surprised, apparently having not been consulted. It was a measure of Rann’s growing authority in the party that he was able to execute the move without criticism. He emphasised to the caucus that this was a new portfolio created for the purpose. As a senior figure in the South Australian ALP explained to me, “From the party’s point of view, it was most important to secure government. There was no debate about that. If anyone was unhappy, they kept it to themselves.”

The government was no longer wholly reliant on the unpredictable Speaker for support, but its survival was still far from guaranteed. Just over eighteen months later, Rann again moved with unexpected boldness by appointing to cabinet the lone National in the parliament, Karlene Maywald, in a new portfolio for the Murray River. Like McEwen, Maywald had also voted for the Kerin government in the confidence motion in 2002. Political scientist Andrew Parkin has described her joining the government as “a surprising and even shocking step.” It was a political masterstroke by the premier, driven entirely by the imperative of political survival. Maywald, who had represented the seat of Chaffey since 1997, was a very popular local member in a conservative rural electorate highly dependent on the Murray for its economic wellbeing.

It was the first time that Labor had included “outsiders” in a cabinet since Prime Minister Chris Watson had made Henry Bournes Higgins attorney-general in his short-lived 1904 federal government. To clinch the deal, Rann signed an agreement with the two non-Labor ministers enabling them to opt out of collective responsibility and cabinet solidarity on certain issues, and not be required always to vote with the government. To reinforce their privileged positions, Rann promised that they would be guaranteed places in the cabinet should Labor retain office at the 2006 election, whether or not Labor had a majority. In effect, this gave the non-Labor ministers security of tenure that not even the premier himself had, since he would have to be re-elected, like his other ALP ministers, by caucus.

As it turned out, Labor won a comfortable majority in its own right in 2006, gaining twenty-eight seats against fifteen for the Liberals, one National and three independents. Labor honoured the agreement with the two non-Labor ministers.

The agreement between the government and the non-Labor ministers was one of the most significant departures from the Westminster system enacted anywhere. Drawn up by Bradley Selway, the state solicitor-general, it included, for example, a clause stating that: “The Premier and the Minister agree that the Minister will have a special position in Cabinet in that, by reason of his/her non-affiliation with the Labor Party, there is a class of issues in respect of which it will not always be possible for the Minister to be bound by a Cabinet decision…” Another clause exempted them from having to comply with Labor policies on “significant matters affecting the business community; and issues believed to be matters of conscience.”

Maywald’s decision to accept a portfolio after careful consultation with both McEwen and her South Australian Nationals officials, provoked a storm of indignation elsewhere in conservative ranks. Federal Liberal MP Patrick Secker branded her a “traitor” and called for a corruption inquiry into the appointment, and there were even moves seeking to have her disaffiliated from the Nationals’ federal organisation. For a short time, the South Australian party removed itself from the Nationals’ fold, but subsequently returned.

Having non-Labor ministers in the government was never of any real significance to the electorate at large, according to both the former ministers and Labor MPs. As Maywald told me, people were more interested in seeing a good job done in government than caring very much about which badge it wore, and issues took precedence over ideology and party posturing. On her website at the time she stated: “I represent a conservative electorate and support conservative government, but believe that for the stability of the State we should work with the government of the day if we want to get anything done.”

Both ministers exercised their right of dissent on a number of issues, most notably over industrial relations; both say this did not affect their positions within cabinet in any way and that their agreement with the government had been honoured in the spirit as well as the letter. They paid tribute to Rann’s consensual style, noting that during their tenure cabinet had not needed to take a vote. It is interesting to speculate on the extent to which the move “depoliticised” cabinet as the supreme political decision-making body during that period. One senior Labor figure I spoke with shrugged this off: “State politics is not about ideology any more; it’s about managerialism.”

THE UNUSUAL appointments not only bought breathing space for Labor in the parliament, but also gave the Rann government a broader community base than it would otherwise have had. Senior Labor figures conceded that Maywald and McEwen often contributed a different perspective to cabinet discussion. But few political insiders were prepared to acknowledge any high-mindedness in the move, with most describing the initial appointments as a desperate gamble for survival and the guarantee that the two ministers would stay after the subsequent election as a bid to conceal that desperation and block the Liberals’ picking up another seat. As one Labor member put it to me, it had nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with opportunism.

Yet the political payoff for Rann in his second term was immense. First, he protected his flank from the right in an already conservative Labor government; with two known conservatives endorsing (most) cabinet decisions there was little room for allegations that left-wing or trade-union influences were at work. Second, he secured a priceless third-party endorsement from the two non-Labor ministers, who each publicly averred that the premier was an honest man of his word. Third, although he is as stridently adversarial and politically tribal as any political leader, Rann took the edge off the public disillusionment about politicians always squabbling among themselves about petty issues and seeking to score points at the other side’s expense; he was seen at the time more as a statesman than a politician. (On the eve of the 2006 election, Newspoll indicated that two-thirds of those surveyed approved of Rann’s performance. Another poll had his approval rating at over 80 per cent, with opposition leader Rob Kerin trailing behind on 40 per cent.) Finally, Rann wisely tapped into a wider talent pool than would have been available if cabinet had been confined solely to members of his own party; by all accounts both “outsider” ministers were highly competent and well regarded. McEwen has since retired and Maywald was defeated at the 2010 election.

It’s not clear what lessons there were in these events for other parliaments, as Mike Rann’s unusual move owed its genesis almost entirely to the peculiarities of South Australian politics and a premier prepared to think laterally. But since then there have been developments in other jurisdictions that suggest the old two-party model is mutable. New South Wales has broken new ground with the election of an independent Speaker in the Legislative Assembly; the Greens in the ACT have entered into an agreement with Labor to support the government after it lost its majority in 2008 (and have also supplied a Speaker); in Tasmania, with its hung parliament elected in 2010, the Greens and Labor have made history by forming a coalition government; and in Western Australia, the independently minded Nationals burst back into relevance with a deal to support the Liberals after the last election. With the old voting patterns eroding, and the major parties seeing their aggregate vote dropping to around 80 per cent, these developments might well herald the start of a genuine rethink of government and governance after a century of duopoly. •