Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tasmania's constitutional wrangle

For the benefit of international readers, Tasmania is an island and Australian state located 150 miles (240k) to the south of the mainland. With a population of around 500,000, it is Australia's smallest state.

At the recent elections, the Labor Party won 10 seats in the lower house, the Liberal Party 10 seats and the Greens 5 seats, creating a hung Parliament. Prior to the election, Labor Party Leader David Bartlett had said that, if there was a hung Parliament, he would recommend to the State Governor that the Party that won the greatest number of primary votes be given the chance to form Government. The Liberals did and Mr Bartlett so recommended despite opposition from within his own Party.

The Governor rejected the recommendation and instead commissioned Mr Bartlett to form a Government to be tested on the floor of the house. The whole affray has created a degree of light and, unusually, the Governor issued a statement setting out his reasons. Making it clear that his focus lay in the selection of the person most likely to be able to form a Government, he said in part:

The commissioning of a person to form a government is entirely the governor's prerogative and it is not within the gift of any political leader to hand over or cede to another political leader the right to form a government, whatever the result of the election.

I find the case an interesting one on both constitutional and political grounds.

While one can argue the matter one way or another, I suspect that the Governor had no choice given that the Greens had signaled support for Labor, while Labor itself apparently refused to any assurances about no-confidence motions or blocking supply. In these circumstances, giving a commission to the Liberal leader carried considerable risks.

One of the things that is, I think, insufficiently recognised, is that Australia has a Parliamentary system of Government. The fact that the Liberals got more votes, the views of Messrs Bartlett and Hodgman, are neither here nor there in constitutional terms. Parliament itself makes the final decision. The Governor's role lies simply in the grant of a commission, the opportunity to form a Government that must then win the support of the lower house.

On political grounds, the thing that most interested me was what all this means for the Greens. Accepting that Liberal leader Hodgman did not make things easy for the Greens, I found it difficult to believe that the Greens would or could support (or at least not dispose of) a Liberal minority government.

In many ways, the political party that is closest to the Greens in electoral position is the Country or National Party. Like the old Country Party, the Greens are in a minority position. Like the old Country Party, they have to decide how to use their balancing position. And like the old Country Party, their voter base seems to strongly favour one major party over the other, thus constraining their freedom. Will they, for example, stand out or finally enter a defacto coalition with Labor?

Just at present, the National Party is running TV ads in three states attempting to re-assert the Party's position as an independent voice for the regions. I wonder whether or not the Greens might find themselves in the same position a few years out?     

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