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The worst of friends

Coalition government? You can keep it

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

Go back three or four years and try to remember what your honest answer to the question, ‘What do you think of coalition governments?’ would have been. Certainly there were many, many people back then who welcomed the prospect of a government formed through bargaining and negotiation after the election.

Not for them the usual clear-cut majority government with its winner-takes-all outcome that Australia’s Lower House’s preferential voting system produces nine times out of ten, or that the UK’s and Canada’s first-past-the-post system produces about as often.

No, this crowd is fundamentally optimistic about what will transpire when political parties and independents who took different policies, platforms and manifestos to the voters before an election are thrown together to horse-trade and negotiate afterwards, when no party manages to gain a clear win. There’s a certain lovey-dovey, happy-clappy confidence that all will put away their own narrow interests and their core beliefs and values about how to advance the common good. Having done that they will come together to compromise and rejig and refashion, and somehow, in some in-effable and never explicitly detailed process of alchemy, they will produce policies better than those any individual political party or independent took to the election.

You might never have articulated your position in such terms if you were a supporter of the coalition government experiment, but at core you had to hold some such set of beliefs as that.

On the other hand, opponents of coalition governments, and I have always counted myself as a vocal opponent, prefer the back-and-forth of clear majoritarian politics in which there are basically two broad-church political parties, one a grouping of shifting interests on the centre left and the other on the centre right (no doubt with the ABC watching this all from further off to the left than either big party). And each of these big-tent parties, the in team and the out team, takes a moderately clear set of policies to the voters, who then pick between them. And more importantly still, the voters generally punish at the next election any winning parties who lie and do other than they signaled, or whose policies don’t work out, by shifting to the other big-tent party.

But with coalition governments under which policies are all negotiated and horse-traded for after an election, who exactly do the voters blame for failures and lies?

In the democracies of continental Europe that is a fundamental question with no obvious answer. You see, they have proportional representation voting systems explicitly designed never to produce one clear winning party with a majority of places in the legislature. So they always have this dilemma and this shutting out of the voters when it comes to what will and will not be agreed to in the bargaining that leads up to some grouping or other of small to medium-sized parties forming a coalition government. And so you have Italy and Greece and Israel and, yes, Germany.

As far as I’m concerned they can keep their awful voting systems that produce, that always produce, this terrible disconnect between voters and politicians and that insulates the latter from the preferences of those who cast the ballots.

But this is simply not the norm in Australia and Canada and the UK. As I said, our voting systems are designed to produce a clear winner with a clear mandate at least nine times out of ten.

Yet every once in a while that normal result does not transpire, basically because the election result is close to a tie. So in the UK, for instance, the Tories last election under David Cameron won not quite half of the seats in Parliament. And then the choice for the party leader was either to try his hand at minority government, daring the others to bring down his team and probably provoke another election, or to compromise and trim sails by striking a post-election bargain with, say, the small band of Liberal Democrats.

Of course this latter choice will be sold in the name of stability and certainty and the likelihood of running a full term before the voters are again consulted.

As I said, for lovey-dovey optimists this can be heady stuff. Who can forget the smiling photos of David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the garden of 10 Downing Street, oozing bonhomie and bromance after their coalition negotiations were successfully completed? And who can likewise forget the wild optimism (including in the pages of the Economist) with which this was widely received?

A few years on and it has all turned to dust in the UK, or so it seems to me, with a wretched economy, a debt that is going up even faster than it did under Gordon Brown, and a congenital inability to make hard decisions. All that compromise and horse-trading may well just deliver the worst of both parties’ policies, not the best. And it may make tough choices near-on impossible to implement. It may make one look back longingly and wish Cameron had opted for minority government.

All of which brings us to Australia. The empirical evidence, otherwise known as ‘the facts’, is now clear. Coalition government here has been a disaster, even worse (if that’s possible) than in the UK. The handful of rural socialist independents who signed up to the recent experiment and sold their constituents down the river will never again win an election or be taken seriously by anyone. And the Labor party seems to have destroyed its brand. That side of Labor which was actually a reformist party and that looked out for the interests of at least some of those outside its core constituency is gone. It was killed by Julia Gillard and her need to cater to this or that other-worldly Green policy or to some independent’s whimsy, or just her need to keep herself leader of her own party.

I suspect it will be a long time before Labor recovers. It may well be that the next Labor Prime Minister is not someone currently in Parliament, such will be the residue of the voters’ contempt for this debacle of a government. And with that will come that very rare thing in politics, the realisation that it was better not to have won the last election, or rather the post-election auction held by the Greens and rural socialist cabal.

As for those people who a few years back were keen optimists about the prospect of coalition government, I wouldn’t expect that many of them would today admit as much. As I said, the hard, cold facts, more than anything else, can make people change their minds.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who is on sabbatical at the University of San Diego.

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