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The possibility of minority government

By Richard Herr - posted Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The historical record supports the likelihood that, if there is a non-majority electoral result in March next year, there will be power sharing but carried out by a minority government acting alone with support of the cross benches. It will share power with the Parliament every time it wants approval for a bill or any other action requiring parliamentary support. Far less likely is the prospective that there will be a coalition government but this is not impossible.

Recent political events, such as the May 2009 Legislative Council elections, the Pembroke by-election and two recent opinion polls, suggest strongly that the mood of electoral change is abroad in Tasmania. This, in turn, appears to guarantee that Tasmanian voters will be regaled with is a stream of allegations over the next four months about the dangers or joys of minority government or, as some would prefer, “power sharing government”. Much of this discussion will be biased and even more misinformed. Some 30 years of commenting on Tasmanian elections make this prediction an absolute certainty for me!

My part in this debate (here) is to help set the historical context for understanding this issue by reviewing the Tasmanian experience. I want to do this from two perspectives. The first is a brief historical development of majority government within the Westminster tradition. The second is an overview of Tasmania’s recent encounters with minority government and what this might mean for “power sharing” government. To reach this point, I want to begin by addressing the importance of “power sharing” for democratic governance.


“Power sharing” and democratic governance

All democracies require that governmental power be limited on the grounds that all public power derives from the people and the people only give their power to government on conditional (limited) terms. In order for power to be limited it must be restrained and this means it must be shared in some way. Indeed James Madison, one of the framers of the American Constitution, argued more than 200 years ago that the “accumulation of all powers ... in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

The architecture of democracy, however, permits many designs to achieve the aim of limiting power by sharing it among many hands. The American system does it institutionally through the checks and balances of separated powers. Other democratic designs seek to achieve it through constitutional and other legal constraints while still others through managing political processes as did the failed mandated power sharing arrangements in the 1997 Fiji constitution.

But, as with any architecture, the value of any design very much depends on what function the structure is intended to serve. That is, the design must suit the purpose. What does the design of our Westminster system tell us about the value of distinguishing between power sharing governments and minority governments for Tasmania? Very little it might seem. Both are similar in that they focus on the role of political parties as vehicles for exercising Executive power. This contrasts strongly with, say, a vastly different design such as the American system of checks and balances. In this case, power sharing is exercised through governmental institutions and the sharing of decision-making is between and among arms of government rather than within a single arm.

Westminster and governmental power

Since 1688, the Westminster system has demanded that executive power be held accountable to, and through, the Parliament. The way this is done is requiring those commissioned by the Crown as Ministers to have the confidence of the Parliament to retain their commissions. It is important to note here that by “Parliament” we mean a majority of the Parliament - not the entire membership.

The need for majority support in the Parliament to get and keep ministerial power had a natural consequence. Cliques of like-minded (or mutually ambitious) Members formed over time within the Parliament to improve their chances to hold on to power. These cliques were not especially durable but they quickly became institutionalised when democratic reform extended the franchise during the 19th century. These groups formed political parties outside the Parliament to contest mass elections so they could win enough seats to keep or win a majority in Parliament.

The formation of political parties was critical to our contemporary understanding of the issue of minority government in Westminster systems like Tasmania. The political elites who wanted power needed to capture enough seats in Parliament in order to do this. And to win these seats they needed the organisation of a political party. Notice what this development did to elections. An individual candidate really did not need a political party to win a single election. However, political parties were necessary to win the large number of seats needed to claim a majority to form government.


Political parties strengthened their internal structures to win the large numbers of seats required and, in doing this, the party expected a great deal from the MPs they helped to elect. The imposition of discipline upon the party’s MPs reached such an extent that by the early 20th century that it became patently evident that in reality MPs were delegates of their party rather than representatives of their constituencies.

For many political theorists of a century ago this could not be democratic. One of these critics was our very own Andrew Inglis Clark. He distrusted the power of political parties, especially their unelected administrative wings, and wanted an electoral system that kept the party elites from controlling everything or at least made room in Parliament for more diversity of representation.

Some of you might well be asking yourselves why would political parties even dream of believing there could be a democratic value in reducing MPs to the status of ciphers - delegates of the party sent to Parliament to do the bidding of the party as instructed - rather than serving as responsible representatives of their communities. The answer is in the idea of an electoral mandate. Not surprisingly this justification was discovered about the same time that the criticisms appeared in the academic literature!

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First published in the Tasmania Times on November 26, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Richard Herr is an Honorary Associate of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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