The focus of political commentary since the election has largely been on the balance of power in the House of Representatives and on the make-up of the new Government. Labor has a very narrow majority in its own right in the House. So what is the road ahead for Labor?
Having a majority in the House of Representatives is extremely important. But so is the Senate. And so are Committees of the Parliament, and perhaps less formal committees..
The Teals are largely a new force. I expect them to be a continuing force. Labor would be sensible to do likewise.
The Greens have served their apprenticeship, and are a more powerful force at Federal level than ever before. There is often a higher antipathy between Labor and the Greens than between either and the Coalition. The Greens tend to see themselves as the pure party of the Left. Labor sees them as glorying in the luxury of being free of the responsibility of Executive Government and, on important occasions, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. One previous Climate battle is a bitter example of the latter. And importantly, Labor and the Greens are fierce competitors for the votes of left-leaning electors.
When I studied the political science of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the mid-1960s, I encountered a theory that Russians craved autocratic government because of the pervasive cold climate of much of the USSR – Russians never got over the comfort of tight swaddling as babies in bitter winters.
I don’t think that the cause is climatic, but Australians have had an instinctive fear of minority governments and shared executive power. I recall those fears coming out when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister in a hung Parliament in 2010. However the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government was one of massive legislative achievements, as well as countering what Australians call the Global Financial Crisis with outstanding success. However I heard such fears expressed again in the aftermath of the election.
Evidence that the climate and geography are not the source of our fear of minority governments is seen by looking at the extensive history of minority government in New Zealand. Minority governments are very common in democracies around the world, especially across Europe. (The United States is a quite different system, in part because of its Presidential system and in part because – compared to Australia – of the fractured nature of its political parties and the looseness of their discipline. In the US, much political decision-making is by consensus).
Jack Waterford, a frequent contributor to Pearls & Irritations, wrote about the dilemma facing Labor in dealing with the Greens and Teals: “Too close, too intimate, will be nearly as bad as being too careless of each other’s sensibilities”, wrote Waterford.
Waterford proposed that incoming Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese should consider creating a range of government committees – with representation for the Teals and the Greens – to work together to develop common policies into workable legislation on such issues as creating an ICAC, promoting a return to integrity and accountability, stronger action on the climate crisis, and promoting safer and more respectful workplaces.
Waterford’s proposal was that such committees would not be select committees with opposition representation. Rather they would be working parties being briefed by bureaucrats. Their role would be to promote workable agreed solutions as soon as possible, so that the Government’s program can be advanced without delay. Waterford notes that such an approach was followed in relation to Freedom of Information and the administrative reform package in the late 1970s, and Family Law legislation until John Howard, Pauline Hanson and others politicised it around the turn of the millennium.
Another policy issue referred by Waterford as being suitable for such treatment is the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
If only because of the Senate, Labor obviously needs to work closely with the Greens and the Teals to advance its agenda. To those who wish Labor success with its agenda – and those who hope that it might go further than it has promised on the Climate challenge – it is very comforting to realise that Anthony Albanese was the Minister in the Gillard Government who carried responsibility for advancing its business in that Parliament. Without a majority in either House, he achieved – by volume – the most successfully implemented legislative agenda in our National Parliament since Federation.
It was said that Gough Whitlam’s approach was “Crash through or crash”. Whitlam’s Government did both. But consensus and cooperation are not weaknesses. Now is not the time for “Crash through or crash”. And the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.