An Early Election

Everywhere you go these days, people are saying we need a new election.  Whether it is parents at schools that are under threat of closure, hospital workers concerned about cutbacks, forestry people angry at the sellout of their industry, public servants worried about their jobs, investors confused by the planning laws, letter-writers to the papers, Liberals sensing the main chance - everywhere, everyone is talking up an election.

It is not that they are wanting an election as such, but there is a real desire for a change of government direction.  Which could be a change of government.

And the mood of uncertainty and anger is not helped by the split in Cabinet over forestry policy, the support by Cabinet members for protestors breaking the law, and also Kim Booth’s incessant claim to bring down the government over payments to Gunns and\or some other “malfeasance”.

All of this has created a climate of instability, and this instability has led to a lack of direction and purpose.

Not that there will be an election any time soon.  Booth’s protestations are more a cry of impotence than anything else.  Even if he does get round to move his motion of no confidence, he is only one and he needs the support of three of the 5 Greens, plus the Liberals.  Those three could be hard to find - the two Green ministers and the Green parliamentary secretary have become far too comfortable in their new roles in government  - some even say in being the real government – the tail wagging the dog.

So it is entirely possible that there will be no early election, and from Labor’s point of view that is probably a good thing, because over the last year they have successfully alienated every traditional support group there is.

Polls show Labor now languishing at less than 25% popularity, not a good position from which to win the next election, and the Greens appear to have reached their zenith at around 20%.  There are signs of disquiet amongst Green supporters  - being in government has caused them to compromise their ideals thus alienating the idealistic vote that has supported them to this time.  Not that this is of much comfort for the Liberals, as they have not yet reached majority support, although their vote is improving.

But let us for a moment assume that Cabinet does fracture, and that this will lead to an election and that it will be soon.

Under our present 25-seat Parliament, a quota for election is 16.67%.  From the above percentages, that will translate into at least one Labor candidate and one Green candidate for each of the 5 electorates.  Labor might even scrape up another 2, depending on the campaign itself.  That leaves 13, maybe 2 more, to the Liberals.

A team of 13 will provide a majority government, so the messiness of co-operative government arrangements between two opposing political ideologies will be gone.  A Cabinet of 8, a Speaker, and 4-6 backbenchers.  The Greens will stay at 5, but with no say in government, and Labor will be reduced to from 5 to 7 members. 

Although this will provide a government with a majority, will this be a good parliament?  I suspect not.  There will not be a strong backbench, and the opposition will be too weak to be even relevant.  This is not good for sound, effective and responsible government.

Under a 35-seat Parliament, a quota for election is 12.5%.  A 35-seat parliament would, under these figures, return a minimum of 5 Greens, 10 Labor and up to 20 Liberals.  This scenario would provide a strong Government backbench and a viable Opposition.  This is good for sound, effective and responsible government.

Such a change cannot occur before the next election, but it can and should be planned for now.  It is a simple matter to amend the legislation, reversing the change of 1998. 

When the matter of an increase in the size of parliament is raised, many argue against it on the basis of cost.  However, this can be done cost neutral.  Ministers are surrounded by advisors, far too many in the view of most people – and considering the standing of the government one suspects they are not too good at their job anyway.  The books can quite easily be balanced such that the cost of MP’s and advisors don’t change.  A gain in one area, a loss in another.  Since most advisors think of themselves as MPs anyway, it is a relatively simple transfer, determined by the electorate.  A more responsive parliament for no extra cost.  It’s got to be good.

Anyway, for those who are hoping for an early election, don’t hope too hard.  It’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.  Any improvement in Labor’s support could leave us in a similar situation to now – a hung parliament and a minority government.  If it did return a majority government - a fact still in some dispute - for the Liberals, the present loss in GST revenues has created a financial situation in which the joys of victory would be short-lived.  Hard decisions will need to be made, and popularity would be ephemeral.  It will require a government with commitment and resolve.  For the present Government, the next election is theirs to lose.  At this point of time, that would be the reality.