What happens if we get a minority government?

Independents may decide the next government in a ‘hung parliament’ – but what does that mean and how would it work?

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In many countries around the world, political parties are often forced into power sharing arrangements with minor parties or independents because they do not have enough seats to govern by themselves.

In Australia, we have had a federal minority government only three times since Federation, however there is a possibility in the 2022 Federal Election that neither the Coalition nor Labor will have the numbers to form government. Without a majority in the lower house, each would have to rely on Independents or other parties to govern. Here’s how it works.

What is a hung parliament?

In Australian politics, the party (or coalition of parties) with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives forms government.

There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives, so a party requires 76 seats to have majority. If they have less than this, then we face what is known as a ‘hung parliament’.  

In this event, there are several possible courses of action, the most common of which is a ‘minority government’.

For a minority government to be formed, one side would need enough minor party and independent MPs to agree to vote with it to ensure the budget supply bills can be passed, and to support the minority government in a vote of no-confidence. Before an election result is clear, convention requires the Governor-General act on the advice of the caretaker Prime Minister – currently Scott Morrison.

Did you know?

The Australian Constitution does not specifically deal with the situation of a hung parliament. According to constitutional experts, hung parliaments are resolved by a set of unwritten rules or conventions inherited from the United Kingdom.

Generally, the Governor-General should act contrary to that advice only where the rules have not been followed – for example, where a Prime Minister sought to stay on despite having lost majority support in the House of Representatives.

In such a case, the Governor-General could dismiss the Prime Minister and commission a new government. In the event a new government could not be commissioned, the Governor-General would need to call another election.

Once the election result becomes clear, an incumbent Prime Minister must, by convention, resign if another party wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

In Australia, it is the custom for the resigning Prime Minister to advise the Governor-General to commission the leader of the majority party to form a government.

A secondary convention is that if, after an election, no one emerges with a majority in the House, the incumbent Prime Minister, as the last person to hold a majority, has the right to remain in office and test his or her support on the floor of the House.

In practice, each of the parties will first negotiate with independents and minor parties to ensure they have the support to form a minority government. This involves gaining assurances any minority government partners will not block supply (the Budget) and will oppose no-confidence motions initiated by other parties.

How difficult is minority government?

A minority government will need to negotiate with independents or minor parties to pass its legislation through the House of Representatives. This makes government complicated but not impossible.

Current Senate crossbencher Jacqui Lambie says she thinks a hung parliament makes for a better democracy because people must “work harder” and “communicate with each other” to pass legislation.

All governments have to negotiate, both internally and externally to pass legislation. The current government is a Coalition of parties, albeit in a relatively stable one, who has had to get legislation through the Senate, where it didn’t have a majority. Any future government, whether it holds a majority in the House or Representatives or not, will likely have to do the same.

The history of minority government demonstrates both the promise and difficulty of this situation.

The first of only two times a hung parliament occurred was in 1940 when the Coalition, under Prime Minister Robert Menzies won 36 seats – two short of a majority. It subsequently formed a minority government with the support of two independent crossbenchers, Alexander Wilson and Arthur Coles.

Its grip on power lasted only eight months before it lost the support of the two independents who crossed the floor to form a minority government with Labor under John Curtin, who had to contend with the Coalition holding a majority in the Senate.

Subsequently, Curtin went on to win the next election in 1943 with an outright majority and then again in 1946 under Ben Chifley, both times with a Labor majority in the Senate.

The second hung parliament occurred in 2010, when the Gillard government formed a minority government with the support of three independents and the Greens MP Adam Bandt. While the Gillard minority government kept the confidence of the House and passed more legislation in its first 700 days than the Abbott government did in the same period, it subsequently lost the election in 2013.

Sources: Parliament of Australia & The Conversation

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