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Forming a Government in Australia after a Hung Parliament

In the federal and state governments in Australia, resolving a hung parliament in which no party garnered enough votes to form a majority government takes one of two courses: A coalition government is formed or a minority government results.

A coalition government is the result of political bargaining. Crossbenchers exchange promises of support for access to executive power, usually in the form of a position in the ministry. A government that has ministers from a minor party or incorporates an independent from the crossbench is thus considered to be a coalition government.

In a minority government, crossbench Members of Parliament (MPs) may promise to support a government by voting for it in the lower house without actually demanding access to a ministerial position. Political deals may be done to achieve this support, but these tend to come in the form of letters of agreement about future policy commitments or even charters of political and/or policy behaviour. The key point of difference from a coalition government is that a minority government does not have members of the crossbench in the ministry.

Forming coalitions and minorities in Tasmania

A number of minority governments have been formed in state politics due to hung parliaments. Tasmania, with its proportionally elected lower house, has had the most extensive experience of minority and coalition governments as a result of hung parliaments.

In 1989, five green independent MPs (independents with an environmental platform) were elected to the lower house, where they held the balance of power in a hung parliament. In the time between the election and the convening of the House of Assembly (this is technically what it is called in Tasmania), the green independents signed an accord with the ALP that allowed it to form a minority government. This agreement saw the defeat of the caretaker Liberal premier, Robin Gray.

In the 2010 Tasmanian election, the Australian Greens, by then a minor party, again won five seats and the balance of power. This time, the Greens negotiated a coalition agreement with the Labor Party. Unlike in 1989, the Greens this time demanded — and got — ministerial positions in the government. Tasmania then had a Labor–Green coalition government.

Hung parliaments: Staying stable or veering toward volatile

The knife-edge margins associated with hung parliaments hint at the possibility of volatility. Changes in the alignment of the crossbenchers can lead to changes in government even without an election. The Tasmanian minority governments that happened in the 1990s didn’t go their full term, yet the minority government of Victoria between 1999 and 2002 did nearly serve a full term and was never prone to dissolution or instability.

Most parliamentarians prefer to go as close to full term as they can in order to minimise the prospect of an early election that may result in very different outcomes or, in the case of the crossbench MPs, may result in them losing their seats. Hung parliaments, therefore, have the potential to be volatile, but they can be quite stable as well.

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