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Minority governments provide the best form of democracy

By Everald Compton - posted Thursday, 2 May 2013


For all of the first 15 years after Federation in 1901, Australians elected Minority Governments. Nevertheless, the Parliament passed much of the essential legislation that created the fabric of Australian society today. The Age Pension is a prime example of this.

We should also note that for a crucial period during the Second World War, we had a minority government, but we still managed to win the war.

Most of the nations of Europe have had minority governments for as long as I can remember, with many of their voters never having experienced a majority government in their lifetime. You may retort that it was an inability to exercise decisive political power in so many governments that caused the current economic chaos in the European Community. This is an unlikely assumption as they all simply followed the worldwide mania for greed that majority governments failed to curb.

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In fact, when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote the American Constitution, they did not have political parties in mind. They envisaged that Congress would consist of learned people who would make commonsense decisions after profound debate. Indeed, when they set-up the Electoral College with power to choose the President, they did not imagine that States would choose electors who were all bound to a particular candidate. They wanted the finest citizens in the land to be chosen to serve on the College so they could exercise great wisdom in choosing the very best leader who was available for this high office.

The Founding Fathers would be appalled if they discovered how the American President is elected today.

The same beliefs applied when democracy was founded in ancient Greece. No one imagined that Senators would bind together to dominate the decision-making process. Indeed, very few did in that era.

It is my firm belief that majority governments violate the very basic principles of democracy. Yet, here in Australia, many are obsessed with a hatred of minority government. We are so aggravated about it that the problem goes beyond the core issue.

Because a majority of voters don’t like Julia Gillard personally, we automatically associate minority government with her, whereas, if she was popular, minority government would become popular too.

It’s time for us to make a clear distinction between the two. So, let us take a coldly analytical view of the current minority government here in Australia.

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The first thing that should be said is that it was strongly predicted to crash within three months, but has lasted three years. This, in itself, proves that a minority government can actually work in the stable democracy that we have here in Australia. During those three years, more than 300 pieces of legislation have been passed. You may have disapproved of every piece of the legislation, but the fact is that the Parliament was able to carry out its normal business as required by the Constitution.

Certainly, it will be remembered as a Parliament of great controversy, as several pieces of historic legislation were passed by a one-vote margin after bitter debate. However, they related to quite substantial matters such as mining, carbon, disability, education, broadband, etc, and their impact on the nation will be debated for many years to come. No-one can fairly say that this minority government was one of no consequence.

Independents and the Greens have exercised an enormous influence over every Bill. This would seem to be undemocratic, as they represent only a small percentage of voters, but Australia has survived throughout my lifetime with its Senate being controlled by similar minority groups. We find this disturbing because such minority power has not occurred in the House of Representatives since World War II. But, it still represents democracy in action.

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About the Author

Everald Compton is Chairman of The Longevity Forum, a not for profit entity which is implementing The Blueprint for an Ageing Australia. He was a Founding Director of National Seniors Australia and served as its Chairman for 25 years. Subsequently , he was Chairman for three years of the Federal Government's Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing.

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