Hung Parliaments

Hung parliaments are the norm in Australia and we need to accept that every future Federal Parliament will be a hung parliament.

We are not talking here about a  ‘hung’ House of Representatives – we need to recognise that Parliament does not consist solely of the lower house, but is made up of two houses. Cries of ‘but we have a mandate!’ will not change the opinion of Senators who can say, with equal validity, ‘so have we.’ It will especially not change the opinions of minor party Senators whose parties are excluded from participating in debates in the House of Representatives.

In this century all but three years have seen either a coalition or a minority federal government. Only the 2007 election resulted in a parliament in which a single party had control of the House of Representatives.

(For those who believe that a Liberal/National government is not a coalition – has the leader of the National Party ever stated loudly and unequivocally that the National Party is just the country branch of the Liberal Party? Conversely, has the Liberal Party ever claimed to be the city branch of the National Party? Even members of Queensland’s Liberal National Party attend separate Liberal and National Party caucuses when in Canberra.)

After every election a government is formed. It might be a single party, a coalition or a minority government, but this government will have the numbers in the House of Representatives. These numbers will be tested from time to time by votes of no confidence. A loss of the confidence of the House normally requires the Government to resign in favour of an alternative government or to advise a dissolution of the House of Representatives.

If a no confidence motion is passed early in the life of the parliament, a new government will be formed from among the successful movers of this motion. This happened in 1941, installing John Curtin as Prime Minister of a minority Labor Government. If the vote of no confidence is carried late in the life of a parliament, as happened with the Scullin Government in 1931, the Prime Minister will probably call a new election.

Unlike Britain and New Zealand, Australia does not have a textbook Westminster system of government – control of the House of Representatives does not guarantee passage of bills through the Parliament. For a bill to pass Parliament it needs to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It seems reasonable, therefore, to state that every Australian parliament this century has been a hung parliament.

Historically, the last Prime Minister with a single party majority in both houses was Ben Chifley.

If every future parliament will be a hung parliament, why the hysteria about having a hung House of Representatives?

Winning a large majority in the House of Representatives does not help governments pass legislation through the Senate. Manufacturing majorities through the use of single member electorates is undemocratic.

Our country is a coalition of different values, traditions and philosophies. We should not try to avoid a hung House of Representatives and we should not fear it – we should embrace it.

What is needed is an electoral system that mirrors the mind of the nation. We need a genuine STV model for the House of Representatives – one which will allow for the formation of a government that will truly reflect the diversity and the strengths of our nation.

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