Saturday, January 27, 2018

Tasmania 2018: What Happens If No Party Wins A Majority?

UPDATE 28 Jan: Parts of this article relating to Labor are now out of date with ABC TV News tonight clearly showing Labor leader Rebecca White saying that Labor will not govern in minority.   See update at bottom of article.

UPDATE 31 Jan: And I missed it at the time but Will Hodgman also on the first day of the campaign said "We will govern in majority or not at all [..]"
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Advance Summary 

1. Despite widespread reports to the contrary, neither major party appears to have given an explicit commitment that they will not govern in minority should no party win a majority at this year's Tasmanian state election.

2.  The leaders have only given various, often ambiguous, commitments that they will only govern "alone" or that they will not govern via deals with, or with the support of, minor parties.

3. A widespread belief that if there is no agreement between parties the Liberals would be forced to keep governing appears to follow instead from a direction from Governor Underwood to Premier Bartlett to form a government in 2010.

4. In theory, a government in such a position could instead resign, but this seems unlikely in practice.

5. In the absence of at least a tacit arrangement between parties, the most likely outcome of a hung parliament would be the Liberal Party continuing in minority unless/until the government was defeated on the floor of the House.

6. For this reason, a parliament without any party holding a majority might (if all parties stuck to their pre-election commitments but no party gave any new ones) be unusually unstable.


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There's been quite a bit of media coverage in the last week about what happens in the 2018 Tasmanian state election if no party wins a majority.  This started when the ABC's Rhiana Whitson put a question to the Premier, Will Hodgman, about a scenario in which the Liberals might be left in office in minority because neither party wants to govern in that condition.  When Hodgman's response stressed the concept of a "A majority Hodgman Liberal Government" (or nothing) this was widely taken as flagging that he would resign and let somebody else be Premier in minority, a repeat of the 1996 situation with Ray Groom resigning and being replaced by Tony Rundle.

The Premier didn't care for this interpretation and took to Twitter to deny it, saying that he would not quit.  He was then asked by the ABC's Richard Baines to guarantee he would continue as leader no matter what and replied "Yes, 100% guaranteed".  As I pointed out in that article, the guarantee is not Hodgman's to make - if the party's result is poor the party might remove him, especially if it decided it wanted to continue in office and was in a position to do so.  But it's not surprising he should make it anyway - after all if it falls through he won't be leader any more, so the fact that he has made it won't be relevant.  If he didn't make it, of course, that might give legs to some story about a plot to replace him as leader and a vote for the Liberals being a vote for someone else.  Which it could in practice be.

In this article I'll discuss some possibilities should nobody win a majority.  Some myths have developed that the Governor is obliged to act in a certain way based upon events in 2010, but there is a case that the Governor is not obliged in a certain way and indeed probably shouldn't.  Indeed somewhat irregular decisions by two previous Tasmanian Governors raise real questions about how well we can predict what the incumbent Tasmanian Governor, Kate Warner, might do, depending on whether her decisions follow Tasmanian precedents or precedents from elsewhere.

I should say from the outset that this year's campaign is not 2010.  In 2010 the Green vote was so high in polling that there was no realistic chance of a majority for either party, and hence entreaties from four former Premiers to avoid minority government had no effect (voters so minded having no idea who to vote for to achieve this).  In 2018, only a relatively small swing back to the Liberals from their aggregated polling position is needed for them to to retain 13 seats, provided that none are taken by the Lambie Network.  A majority Labor government is a more far-fetched possibility, but not completely unthinkable either, should the Green vote unexpectedly crash. We're dealing only with something that could happen, not something that necessarily will. 

What's All The Fuss About?

Observers from outside the state - and indeed, some Tasmanians, wonder why major parties are so keen to tell the voters that they will govern in majority or not at all.  After all there are many politically stable European countries in which governing in minority is the aim of the game and majority government rarely if ever happens.

The issue in the last thirty years has been that Tasmanian governments involving the Greens are pretty turbulent.  The Greens' supporters expect them to use their power in a hung parliament to deliver outcomes for them.  However these outcomes are unpopular with the major parties and with voters who swing between the major parties, so there is a lot of incentive to:

* not give the Greens very much, resulting in the continual threat of the Government being brought down (1996-8)
* back off from agreements with the Greens when major-party aims are under threat; ditto (1989-92)
* alternatively if there is a formal stable Coalition, rebels on both sides take purist positions and attack it to try to save their own seats (2010-4)

A government involving the Lambie Network as a minority partner wouldn't have these issues, but a party opening the door to dealing with them leaves itself at risk should any JLN candidates have controversial pasts.

Meeting The House

In the event of a result where no party wins a majority, there is abundant precedent for the idea that the incumbent Premier, as the Governor's adviser, can seek to test whether he/she has the confidence of the House.  This is often called "meeting the House".  The Premier can claim that right even if they have lost their majority and have no deal with another party, even if there is a deal to form government between opposing parties, or even if an opposing party has won a majority (although it is unusual to attempt it in that case.)  If the previous government lacks the numbers, it will usually fall more or less immediately (perhaps on some secondary test, such as ability to elect the Speaker, or a motion to amend an address in reply) and resignation will follow.

What Happened In 2010

In the 2010 election, the Liberals won the same number of seats as Labor and received more primary votes.  This triggered conditions Premier David Bartlett had set for the Liberals to at least be given the first attempt to form government, although exactly what he promised them in this situation was later disputed.

Bartlett then advised Governor Underwood (see PDF) that he did not wish to give advice "at this time" that he should remain Premier.  He advised that Hodgman should indicate whether he (Hodgman) could form a government instead, and that if Hodgman satisfied the Governor that he could, Bartlett would then resign.

Hodgman then made no attempt to convince the Governor that a Hodgman Government would be supported by the Greens, instead claiming it would be supported by Labor (based on various public statements by Premier Bartlett).  The Governor said any such commitment from David Bartlett would need to be made to the Governor, but then Bartlett would not give such a commitment.

At this point the Governor decided Hodgman had not presented convincing evidence that a Hodgman government would be supported (given Bartlett's current position), and therefore recalled Bartlett.  He told Bartlett that Bartlett had a "constitutional obligation" to form a government anyway so that its support could be tested in the House.

However, as Anne Twomey points out, it is not clear where that obligation comes from.  It would have been open to Bartlett - had he wished to do so - to resign.  After Hodgman failed to convince the Governor that he could form a Government, the Governor could have asked Bartlett to provide advice on whether or not he was willing to "meet the House", rather than telling him he had to.  In that circumstance, it didn't really matter, since Labor would presumably have agreed to govern anyway.  But it could make a big difference in the case of a Premier who has promised to govern in majority or not at all.

This isn't the first time a Tasmanian Governor's process for appointing a new government has come under fire.  In 1989 Governor Bennett imposed various tests on the then Green Independents to check that a new government would be stable.  However as an election had been held, and as the Gray government had clearly lost the confidence of the House, it can be strongly argued (example) that Bennett should not have done this and should have just commissioned Michael Field as Premier whether his government would be stable or not.  So Tasmania has a record of some rather dubious precedents on hung parliament matters.

What If The Premier Wants To Resign?

If a Premier who had promised to govern in majority or not at all failed to win a majority, I do not see anything that prevents them from advising the Governor that they are unwilling to govern and that they resign.  An Opposition Leader in the same position might take the same stance, at which point the Governor might not have any alternative but to seek to appoint a Premier from a minor party who was willing to attempt the role (even if their prospects of lasting more than a day appeared bleak).  Alternatively, the Governor would need to consider whether the Premier's position was that of their party or only a personal position - if the latter there might be a prospect of appointing someone else from the same party.

However, while it would be possible for a party to refuse to govern (including resigning immediately if appointed) it would probably be a silly strategy.  An Opposition on assuming government would endlessly taunt the previous government, saying that it had not even been willing to attempt to govern and therefore all its criticisms of the new government were irrelevant.  The old government would be in a much weaker position than had it chosen to "meet the Parliament" and been voted out.

...But He Hasn't Said That, Anyway

It does not appear to me (though I welcome any evidence) that either Will Hodgman or Rebecca White have said their party will govern in majority or not at all.  Hodgman did say that "we will govern alone or not govern at all", but what exactly are the limits of governing "alone"?  Did the Rundle government 1996-8 (which had very minimal confidence-and-supply support from the Greens) "govern alone"?  It is ambiguous. There are other cases of such apparent guarantees, for instance this address, which refers to past promises to not govern in minority, but which doesn't explicitly make such a promise for the future (only one of "no deals".)  Indeed based on the 2010 precedent, some Liberals seem mindful of the possibility of being directed to form a minority government.

So I think the idea that the Liberals will refuse to govern should they fail to win a majority is far-fetched.  Whether their government would then last upon meeting the House  is another question and might depend upon who holds the balance of power.  If it is the Greens, then in theory this could result in the government being immediately turfed, as foreshadowed by Adam Brooks.

On the Labor side of the fence, there have been various comments indicating that the party will not do deals with other parties (although, as the Liberals were quick to point out, that's not necessarily what the rules say).  White also gave a simple "No" when asked if she would form minority government with the Greens at the Property Council debate in October.  But there has not been any absolute assurance that I can find that the party won't govern in minority under any circumstance, although this has been widely assumed to be Rebecca White's position.  Again, possibly because of Premier Bartlett being told to get on with it in 2010, we have not had a repeat of what happened in 1996.  In 1996 Labor candidates signed a pledge stating that they would not govern in minority.  Here we have had no such pledge.

From what I can determine therefore, neither Liberal or Labor have explicitly ruled out governing in minority.  They have each ruled out governing in minority with various forms of deals or support from the Greens and other parties, but none of these preclude attempting to govern in minority alone, nor do they necessarily preclude accepting unilateral offers of confidence and supply from other parties.

There seems to be potential for a lot of mess here if the Greens again hold the balance of power alone.  If Labor is refusing to deal with them, it might be in their interests not to throw the Liberals out immediately, but instead to see what concessions the implied threat of doing so might extract from the Government.  Would Labor want to retain the threat of bringing down the Government, or might it be better for its long-term chances to follow the lead from 1996 and leave the Liberal government in office?  (After all, every time the Greens have held the balance of power before, the Opposition has won the next election comfortably.)

Of course, all this assumes leaders will stick to what they have said in the leadup, which may not necessarily be the case.

(For other articles on the state election, see my main guide page.)

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Update Jan 28: On the first day of the election campaign proper, we have a significant development with Labor leader Rebecca White being quoted as saying Labor "will not govern in minority".  This then looks a lot like a repeat of 1996 should no party win a majority - Labor would refuse to bring down the Government, at least for a while, and the Liberals would be left in office (unless they refused to rule which might result in a second election, a Green government or something else bizarre.)  However it would be even more minimal than in 1996 because the Government would not deal with the Greens.  In practice, the Government could be in office in name only, lacking the numbers on most major issues in either house.  I wouldn't expect that to last anything near a full term.  The other alternative is the Liberal plus Lambie Network majority, and in that case the government would be able to find a lot more common ground and might be more viable.

Naturally, White's commitment has been greeted with a high degree of cynicism.  However in 1996 Groom promised to govern in majority or not at all and resigned to keep his promise; Labor promised the same and remained in Opposition.

Update Jan 31: I missed it at the time but on the first day Will Hodgman also said "we will govern in majority or not at all" addressing a rally at New Norfolk.  The stakes seem to be rather high then - if there is not a majority result then one or the other of Hodgman and White will probably have to resign so their party can govern.

11 comments:

  1. Every time I see a LIB/ALP leader asked if they can rule out forming a government in coalition with GRN/OTH, and they say yes, I want the journalists next question to be "So you'll go into coalition with the ALP/LIB instead?" and then when they again answer "No", "So what would you be willing to negotiate with the cross bench for them to allow you to govern in minority then?"

    Nobody ever considers the possibility of LAB and LIB governing in coalition, but there's no reason they couldn't. And you'd think that in Qld that would be preferable to most voters than one of them shacking up with ONP. Perhaps the best chance of this might be in SA, where they might do it just to flout Xenophon.

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  2. Politics in Tasmania as it is in all of Australia is a sh**e storm at the moment. What is the solution? I honestly have no idea. What would I like to see? a government for the people, all of them, business,yes even the big ones, the battler around the corner trying to keep his/her family fed, clothed and housed. Medical needs taken care of, the aged and infirm looked after, kids given a proper education and on it goes. The chances of this happening?, about as much chance as I've got of bumping my bum on the moon. Having said that it will be interesting to see what, if any effect the JLN has on the outcome. This year Kevin I think there will be a quite a few occasions when you'll need a Bex, a cuppa and a good lie down or failing that a belt of a good single malt.

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  3. How can liberals govern ? They have lost the upper house votes?

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  4. Why does polling show interest at all in liberals when they have lost the numbers in the upper house? A liberal government cannot pass any laws so are voters kept ignorant of that maybe?

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    1. They can still pass laws when they can get either the Labor MLCs or some of the left-leaning independent MLCs on side and this does happen sometimes. For instance a bill to approve access to parts of Mt Wellington for cable car project assessments got through with only one vote against. However they would struggle to get contentious bills through and it would be a pretty miserable experience.

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  5. "I think the idea that the Liberals will refuse to govern should they fail to win a majority is far-fetched."

    Given that they did exactly that in 2010. is the difference that this time they are coming from government or that they now see the tactic of 2010 as a mistake?

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    1. Part of the difference is that the Liberals are coming from government (an Opposition does not have to make the decision on whether to "meet the House" or not) and part of it is that The Liberals were happy to govern in 2010 if the Governor would appoint them on the basis of guarantees they claimed Labor had made. However the Governor did not accept that position as Labor had not told him that it would have any confidence in a Liberal government. The Liberals could instead (or as well) have tried to convince the Governor that the Greens would support them, but they made no attempt to convince the Governor of this. Whether they even made any attempt to negotiate Green support (however half-hearted) is still disputed.

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  6. Do you think the reason the Liberals didn't 'leak' their internal polling this week ( like they did two weeks ago straight away ) is because the results are worse for them? I would have thought they would 'leak' to their friends at The Mercury again if it showed they were moving further ahead.

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    1. Probably if it "showed" them moving further ahead no-one would believe it. Also I doubt they will release anything that says they're winning easily, even if they have it.

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  7. Will there be an EMRS poll released soon Kevin?

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    1. EMRS normally releases sometime in February but I don't know when it will be. I have not heard that they are in the field yet. In 2006 and 2010 they polled in February and March but in 2014 in February only. I would not be surprised if the latter is the case this time too given the increased competition from ReachTEL et al.

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