Explaining The Current Hung Parliament SituationAugust 23, 2010
I got a lot of questions today from lots of you at school today who where either completely confused by what’s happening at the moment, so I thought I might write exactly what’s going to try and help explain it better. I hope I get everything correct in this blog post, but if something is incorrect, then I’ll do my best to correct it.
In Australia we have 2 houses, a lower house called the House of Representatives where all your local MPs and the Prime Minister sit and an upper house called the Senate where an equal number of people from each state sit (12 from each state and 2 from each territory to make up 76 senators). At each election we elect a brand new House of Representatives and 1/2 of the Senate. The other 1/2 is elected at the next election.
When you go to vote in an election, you vote for your local member. You never vote for the prime minister (unless the leader of that party (which is chosen by the party, not the public) happens to be your local MP). That’s why everyone here in the Redlands and in most of the country did not see Julia Gillard on their ballot paper, she only appeared on the ballot paper in her local electorate (which is in the suburbs of Melbourne). When a party forms a government then the leader of that party (which I repeat: the party chooses, not the public) becomes the Prime Minister. Say last election if the labor party had won the election, but Kevin Rudd had not won his seat (which is very unlikely, but could happpen) then Kevin Rudd could not have been the prime minister, even though he was the one on all the posters. The labor party would have had to decide on a new leader to call Prime Minister. In 2007, this is what happened to John Howard, he actually lost his seat to Labor, so even if the Liberals had won, Peter Costello would have likely become the Prime Minister. Anyway, moving on – so each electorate votes for their local member, whether it be a liberal, labor, greens, independent or any other party on the ballot paper. There are 150 seats in Parliament with one seat for the winner of each electorate.
In Australia, to form a government, you can’t just have the most seats, you need to have the majority of seats and there’s an important distinction between those two words most and majority. Say that the Labor party won 70 seats, the Liberal Party won 68 seats, the greens won 7 seats and the independents won 5 seats. You might think, Labor won the most seats, therefore they won the election, but that’s not how it works in Australia. To form a government, they must have the majority of seats, which means a party must have 76 seats (which is just over 1/2 of 150) to form a government and that’s the problem at this election – neither of the major parties have managed to do that, the first time they’ve been unable to since 1940. The current predictions say that Labor and Liberals will win 73 seats (some say Labor 73 Libs 72 and some say Labor 72 Libs 73 each, it’s around that number) with the remaining 4 to 5 seats held by a Green (the first green in the House of Representatives at a general election) and 3-4 independents. All the figures at the moment keep changing (they changed all 3 times that I checked today) because of the postal votes that are coming in and will continue to come in for the next 2 weeks. Normally the decision is split enough that the postal votes don’t decide who the next government will be, but because it is so close this time, the postal votes are actually becoming quite crucial.
So where does this leave us, well it leaves us with a Hung Parliament, because neither major party managed to gain the majority of seats required to form a government by themselves. Julia Gillard will stay prime minister until a new government can be formed. So 3 things can happen from here. The first option is that the independents and the Green MP in the lower house strike a deal with Labor and we form a Labor/Independent/Green minority government. It is traditional that the government that has been in power before the election gets to have the first opportunity to talk to the independent and Green MPs to strike a deal that will mean 76 people will agree to work together (aka the Labor party and the independent/Green MPs required to make up that 76). If they cannot strike a deal, or the deal is seen to be too unstable by the governor-general, then the liberal party is then given an opportunity to do the same thing and strike a deal with the independent and Green MPs to try and make up that 76 seats. Once either side is able to get the 76 people required and the governor-general determines they will be able to form a stable government, then they will be allowed to form a minority government and the deal is done. What they means is that every piece of legislation that goes through the lower house will require the support of those independent/Green MPs to pass through (which is what they would have agreed to do). If neither party is able to strike a deal to form a minority government, then – back to the polls we go for another election!
At the moment because they’re not certain about those in doubt seats where postal votes keep coming in and changing the results around, neither side is sure how many seats they actually have and therefore are unsure how many independents/Green MPs they’ll need to speak to so they can form a minority government. This is why the election may not be determined for a week or so yet. Also, both Liberal and Labor have to convince the independent/Green MP that their party is the best one to support and this will lead to lots of deals which could include increased funding to projects in those electorates where the independent/Green MPs are located or possibly a spot on the front bench as a minister with a portfolio. Essentially, they will ultimately decide which bribe will benefit them more and also which policies of that party they agree with more. Currently there’s talk that Labor’s National Broadband Network will woo over these MPs because the majority of them come from rural areas where telecommunications are not great at the moment and where the National Broadband Network would benefit them greatly. On the other hand, they might decide on a party which is ultimately more stable, which is the Liberal party at the moment. So that’s where we stand with the Hung Parliament in the lower house at the moment.
Now let’s return to the Senate for a second. Changes to the Senate don’t take effect immediately, so it won’t be until July 1 2011 that the 1/2 of the Senate we elected this time will actually take effect. In this election, it appears that the Greens will take the balance of power, which again, means that neither party will have the majority of people in the Senate. In Australia, once legislation is voted through the lower house (House of Representatives that I’ve been talking about for paragraphs now) it needs to be also voted through the upper house (Senate). This was originally designed as a house of review to make sure that all states were represented fairly but these days it just tends to be a way for parties to block each other’s legislation unless they have a majority in both houses. If legislation does not make it through the Senate, it can be send back to the lower house for amendment and then the process starts again. In this election, the Greens won the balance of power, which again means that neither Liberal or Labor took the majority and so now to get legislation through the Senate, they have to get the Greens to support them. This will provide the Greens with the power to do some what they call “horsetrading”, which means they will say to the government who manages to get power, we’ll only support this legislation if you agree to put this amendment into it or agree to also pass this legislation through. Many see this as a positive thing, because we might possibly have some solid climate policy pushed through the parliament and into legislation. In this election it looks as though Family First Senator Steve Fielding has lost his seat in the Senate which will mean that the Senate will probably be made up of Liberal, Labor, Greens and one Independent Senator called Nick Xenophon.
So why has this situation happened with a Hung Parliament in the House of Representatives and a Senate with the Greens holding the balance of power? Well the Australian voters made the decision that they disliked both parties and that neither of them should be allowed to govern in their own right without being baby sat by the independents and the Greens. Anna Bligh and Kristina Keneally (the premiers of Queensland and New South Wales respectively) are very unpopular Labor leaders in those states and therefore reflected badly on the Federal Labor government in this election, while Victorian and South Australian people lapped up Labor. The supposed knifing of Rudd also made Labor look pretty bad although it’s not Julia Gillard who decided that Kevin Rudd had to be removed, enough of the party was prepared to vote for a new leader of the party (which they’re perfectly entitled to do so, remember the public technically did not vote him in as Prime Minister, the party choose him as leader and therefore can also remove him as leader) and to avoid embarrassment, Kevin decided to step down before the vote. It’s unlikely, but possible that the vote could have decided he would stay as leader. Tony Abbott couldn’t quite manage to gain the majority either and this is likely due to the recent memories of policies such as WorkChoices from the Howard Government, views he expressed in the past about women, his deep religious values and how they’re often taken into account when making policy decisions and his record as Health Minister (especially abortion). Where both parties failed together was the cheap slogans, focusing on issues that really didn’t matter to the majority of Australians and ignoring others like climate change, their short terming thinking and the continuous negative advertising on TV, which told us why the other was so bad, but didn’t tell us why their own policies were better. The Greens did so well because they took all the votes of unhappy Labor voters who wanted more action on climate change and also because they produced a positive advertising campaign which stated their own policies and not why the other 2 parties sucked.
So that’s basically what’s happening at the moment, and these next few days will be very interesting and will decide the future of Australia for the next 3 years or so. I hope you understand this issue much more now than you did before and hopefully will take an interest in what’s happening and ignore the stupid and irrelevant issues such as earlobes sizes, accents and whether one is fitter than the other. If you still have further questions, then please feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll do by best to answer them.