December 10, 2021

Federal politics

What would a minority government look like?

By Russell Marks
Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, December 1, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, December 1, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Might Albanese be pushed by a crossbench of climate-focused independents or Morrison yoked to the rampaging anti-vaxxer far right?

For most of the last six years, the Coalition has held onto majority government by a single parliamentary seat. It goes into next year’s federal election widely expected to lose the ministerial wing. Christian Porter and Greg Hunt are bowing out. The betting agencies have Labor as favourites: $1.65 to the Coalition at $2.20. Newspoll, which remains the only polling company that publishes two-party-preferred predictions, has since July consistently predicted a swing of more than 4 per cent against Scott Morrison’s government. If that came to pass, and if it was evenly distributed, Labor could perhaps win nine seats and form government in its own right.

Spooked by Bill Shorten’s big-target strategy three years ago, Anthony Albanese is promising nothing radical or exciting for the Labor government he would lead. On Sunday he advocated “renewal, not revolution”, a future that would be ambitious but affordable, and a government of responsibility and integrity. This is mostly a collection of buzzwords. But Australia would at least get a federal anti-corruption commission, a climate change policy and a renewed investment in universities. The best-case scenario would be a continuation of the policy work of the Rudd–Gillard years. After nine years of relentless Coalition scandal, that would be no bad thing.

Yet almost nobody believes the Newspoll predictions. After all, things were much the same at the last election. Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop both threw in the towel. In May 2019, Sportsbet, Ladbrokes and TAB all had Labor as almost unbeatable favourites. One man placed a cool $1 million on Labor with Ladbrokes to win at $1.22. Had he punted on the Coalition he would have quadrupled his money. The odds narrowed further for Labor all the way up to May 18. The betting agencies followed the published polls, all of which – Newspoll, Roy Morgan, Essential, Ipsos and even YouGov Galaxy’s exit poll – gave Labor the win on a 2 per cent swing.

Famously, they were all wrong. This time around, the Coalition believes it can hold the seats of Bass and Braddon in Tasmania, and Boothby in Adelaide, while preventing any of the four marginal NSW seats – Wentworth, Reid, Robertson and Lindsay – from falling to Labor. It also believes it can win at least two Labor-held seats: Lyons in Tasmania and Gilmore in NSW. Not even Labor believes it will win majority government: after redistributions, there are only four Coalition-held marginals it can win before it needs a 3 per cent swing, which (despite Newspoll) doesn’t seem on. But the Coalition will probably lose Chisholm in Victoria, and at least two of the Coalition’s three marginal seats in WA. This may mean the Coalition also can’t form a majority government.

As the year ends, and as minds begin to focus on the coming election in 2022, the question being increasingly asked is: What would minority government look like?

The last time Australia had a minority government, it forced the capital markets to start pricing some of the carbon dioxide that is presently emitted freely by highly profitable companies. The Gillard government and its carbon pricing scheme was the fortuitous outcome of a confluence of unlikely factors, including an Opposition leader few people liked (Tony Abbott), a first-term PM nobody could work with (Kevin Rudd), and two former Nationals turned independents (Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) who lent their support to the Labor Party under a new leader.

This time around, there’s almost a blueprint for getting independents elected on climate-action and anti-corruption platforms. It worked for Cathy McGowan and then Helen Haines in Indi, and Zali Steggall in Warringah. It didn’t work for Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth or a handful of rural challengers (including in Barnaby Joyce’s seat). But now there’s a much-publicised $4.6 million “war chest” administered by Simon Holmes à Court’s organisation Climate 200, and a tried-and-tested strategy of boosting existing grassroots campaigns and high-profile locals. ’Tis the season to be hopeful, perhaps?

Labor is obviously better than the Coalition on climate policy, but many of its affiliated unions are full of members who depend on the fossil-fuel industry. So its climate policies will always be heavily compromised for as long as that remains the case. The various “Voices for…” independent candidates aren’t at all attracted by Labor’s 20th-century factionalised mass-party structure, where the most independently minded are also the least-promoted. (Andrew Leigh – an ANU economics professor at 32 and one of the smartest people in the country – can only rise as high as the outer ministry under Albanese’s leadership, simply because he chooses to remain factionally unaligned.) This is probably the future of Green politics in Australia, where activists who join the Greens find themselves inside a much more Laboresque bureaucracy than they had anticipated.

If the stars align, Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Hughes, Kooyong, Goldstein, Flinders, Hume and Nicholls could all return “Voices for” members to join Haines and Steggall in Indi and Warringah. Most or all of them would then join with Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie to support a Labor minority government, and to push it much further than the ALP would like to go on the environment and integrity.

The Greens, led for the first time into an election by a lower-house MP, have their own version of this plan, which involves targeting 10 lower-house electorates. The Green vote in inner-city seats like Higgins, Macnamara, Richmond and Brisbane has been steadily growing (in line with demographic trends) over recent decades, and the party remains ever-hopeful of adding to its single lower-house seat of Melbourne.

There is also a nightmare vision haunting this pre-election Christmas. Perhaps the least-understood and most unpredictable trend in Australian politics has been the rise of an American-style “up yours” movement, so-called because of its attitude to science, knowledge, change and difference. To the bewilderment of those who expected that a global pandemic might have arrested what was a steadily growing anti-vax movement, the up-yours brigade has found in COVID-19 a goldmine of possibility. Opposition to COVID-19 vaccinations and state-imposed restrictions has been a way “in” to up-yours politics, and its main purveyors in the federal parliament – Pauline Hanson, Craig Kelly and George Christensen – have fronted those rallies of the deranged in the capital cities.

It’s hard to know just how pervasive this politics is, and to what extent it is concentrated in key electorates and therefore translatable into parliamentary seats. Most indications are that it is very loud but electorally insignificant, tuned into Sky News Australia and online conspiracy theories, but tuned out of any real influence. Newspoll has Hanson’s One Nation, for instance, getting about the same proportion of the vote – 3 per cent – that it did three years ago. On the other hand, some of the anti-vax massaging, while factually wrong, has been extraordinarily well communicated and coordinated. Clive Palmer is buying regular advertising space on billboards and in News Corp tabloids. And the number of people sacrificing their jobs because they refuse to be vaccinated continues to climb.

If Climate 200 provides a very pragmatic kind of hope for Albanese’s prime ministerial ambitions, Morrison knows – or believes – he’s at least partially dependent on the up-yours brigade. An extraordinary revolt of five Coalition members – including former ministers Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Matt Canavan – crossed the floor last month to vote with Hanson’s private member’s bill that would have made discrimination against unvaccinated people unlawful. It may not take much more for them to follow Craig Kelly onto the crossbench. It also doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility for Queensland to have thrown in one or two additional anti-vaxxer MPs by the time voting closes. Is it that difficult to imagine a Morrison minority government being pulled hard to the far right by a virulently anti-vax, anti-science crossbench?

But up-yours politics probably has a greater chance of success in the Senate, where disparate voters can pool their discontent and get much closer to the statewide 14 per cent required to secure a sixth Senate seat than the 50 per cent-plus-one required to win a lower-house seat in much smaller geographical areas. One possible electoral permutation is that a minority Labor government is supported by a lower-house crossbench of Greens and independents, while the Senate is at the mercy of a crossbench of hardline anti-science proponents. The only remedy available to a government contending with that particular species of chaos would be a double dissolution and a full Senate election… which would halve the Senate qualification to just 7 per cent and probably just grow the crazy crossbench.

Most elections, being contests between the major parties, offer only the prospect of more of the same. But as this latest year of madness draws to a close, there looms the prospect of a genuine fight for the future of Australia. One vision is of a decontextualised collection of abstract freedoms – the freedom to be poor, the freedom to die from COVID-19, the freedom to pollute with impunity, the freedom to indulge in prejudice – which must set Australia further along the path toward the international pariah status that the proponents of this vision seem to so desperately covet. The other vision is for an increasingly inclusive, internationally responsible democracy, sharing its extraordinary wealth with both its own population and its neighbours in need, and ready to finally assume the kind of leadership that’s needed to address the climate catastrophe and to rein in the greatest per-capita carbon emitters on the planet.

I know which future I want for Christmas.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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