Like the United Kingdom, Australia’s Westminster system is normally marked by majoritarian governments, strong executives and dominant prime ministers. The exceptions have been all the more notable as a result. In 1940-1941 two prime ministers (Menzies and Fadden) came and went in quick succession, relying on the support of two conservative independents until the 1941 budget was defeated on the floor of the Parliament. In 2010, Julia Gillard secured a supply and confidence arrangement after coming four seats short of a majority. What is not exceptional is that since the 1950s, governments have had to work around an Australian Senate that is elected using a preferential voting system. As a consequence, governments rarely win a Senate majority and so have to contend with disparate independents and minor parties on a regular basis who need to be consulted and wooed in order to get legislation passed. In New Zealand, minority arrangements are even more common. For twenty years, the New Zealand unicameral parliament has been elected using a mixed-member proportional system. The result has been minority governments that rely on a combination of smaller parties to achieve a balance of power.
So what can Theresa May, facing life without a parliamentary majority, learn from the Australian and New Zealand experience? To succeed she needs a new rule book, and significant changes will be required:
First, the prime minister will need to remember that the criticisms often applied to hung parliaments are really critiques of leadership. In Australia, both in 1941 and 2010 , tensions within the party and broader public followed the removal of the prime minister who had won the previous election. The authority of Julia Gillard was diminished from the start and was exploited by a vociferous opposition seething from such a close result. May’s decision to take the Conservatives to an unnecessary poll has had a similar effect. How well the Brexit negotitions are managed and how persuasively May convinces the electors that she has the necessary skills to get the best deal for the UK will be a key factor to her continued survivial.
Second, the parties in the UK have never had the discipline traditionally seen in political parties in Australia. Backbencher revolts of the kind seen in the House of Commons when large numbers of government members vote against government motions do not happen in Australia. Here, usually disagreements are aired in the privacy of the party room. The smaller numbers of MPs in Australia certainly makes the management task easier, but confidence in the governments’ ability to lead will start with how well May manages her own team. She must remember that the real enemy comes from within. Thus the PM and senior members of the government will need to confer and consult regularly with backbenchers.
Third, the Prime Minister will need to meet regularly with alliance partners and be prepared to compromise. In Australia, consulting with minor parties and independent senators is time consuming work for government leaders, often frustratingly slow, where an alliance from one vote can’t be counted on to hold for the next piece of legislation. Prime ministers have the final say in committing to deals struck, bringing Senators on side and convincing them of why supporting the legislation is beneficial. Because Senators are elected on a State ticket, deals are often struck that give their State extra benefits and boosts the reputation of the individual involved, some of whom have chanced a victory with few first preference votes.
Fourth, bargaining is the new norm. For example, in 2010 it took seventeen days for the Gillard government to negotiate and shore up the support of the Greens Party, and three key independents, to guarantee supply and confidence. This did not stop the Opposition led by Tony Abbott from furiously and frequently questioning the government’s legitimacy. Chaos and uncertainty were adjectives that were often deployed by the Opposition and the conservative media throughout the next three years. A more favourable assessment is provided by those who served in the government. They point to the active role of the Parliament during this period which provided a check to the system of business as usual, while at the same time passing more Acts than previous parliaments. Some were controversial, all required intense bargaining and negotiation, including the introduction of a new disability insurance scheme and plain packaging for cigarettes. Soft skills of bargaining, negotiation and compromise were honed as the government could no longer just assume support for its legislative agenda in the lower house.
Fifth, personality management – and the massaging of egos – is a crucial skill. You might be the prime minister, but it isn’t your government. In New Zealand, ministries are formed from coalitions of interest, with some ministers sitting in Cabinet, and others not. While collective ministerial responsibility remains, the principle has been adjusted to ensure that there is an ‘agree to disagree’ provision to manage policy differences when alliances within Cabinet are threatened. This means the prime minister must not only have the skills to negotiate the formation of a government, but also the ability to massage egos, listen to concerns, and adjust and adapt as needed to ensure ongoing support. It is a continual process where new skills need to be learned quickly. Flexibility and an ability to comprise is a priority.
Finally, remember the voters. How well you hone the soft skills, including listening to alternative views, may be the key to your survival. Looked on in a new light, a minority parliament might be the key to overturning ‘the nasty party’ image and allow the conservatives to rebuild in a kinder, gentler way. The Prime Minister can never allow herself to forget that she’s been put on notice.