With the final count resulting in the fourth Green, Caroline le Couteur, elected to the final seat in the ACT Legislative Assembly, the ACT’s local parliament now includes 7 Labor MLAs, 6 Liberal MLAs and 4 Greens MLAs. On top of that, the ACT Greens today announced that new Ginninderra MLA Meredith Hunter will take on the role of “Parliamentary Convenor” of the ACT Greens, which most media has taken as making her the de facto leader of the ACT Greens. The determination to not name Hunter as the party’s “leader” suggests a reluctance to embrace the concept, the party being dragged kicking and screaming into electing a leader. It also suggests that the party will embrace a minimalist model which does not give much power over the party outside Parliament and the other Greens MLAs, which isn’t surprising considering the Greens’ political history.
So where do the Greens go from here in determining the make-up of the next ACT Government? What options are on the table?
The biggest choice the Greens need to make are whether they will support a Labor government led by Jon Stanhope or a Liberal government led by Zed Seselja. The ALP has a larger presence in the Assembly, although both parties have sufficient MLAs to form a government with Greens support. Another factor supporting a decision to favour Labor is the position of most Greens voters. The pre-election Patterson poll indicated substantially higher levels of Greens voters preferring Mr Stanhope as Chief Minister. On the other hand, the Liberals have appeared to be an easier party to conduct negotiations with, with Labor beginning the negotiations by suggesting they would not move easily to work with the Liberals. The ALP’s history of minority government suggests a difficulty in cooperating with crossbenchers. Indeed, the Liberals have offered at least one ministry in a Liberal/Green government to the Greens, while Stanhope has suggested that he does not favour a model with both Labor and Greens ministers in a coalition government. On the other hand, the Liberal party room includes a number of very conservative MLAs, despite the Cabverra Liberals being considered one of the most progressive Liberal Parties in the country.
So what model could the Greens use as part of an alliance with Labor or Liberal? On all four previous occasions when the Greens have supported a government in Australia (twice in Tasmania and twice in the ACT, supporting Liberal and Labor equally), they have adopted the Confidence and Supply model. This involves the two parties negotiating an agreement that commits the crossbench party, in exchange for some policy commitments, to supporting the government’s budget and to vote with the government (or in some cases, abstain) in the case of any confidence motions which would bring down the government. The Greens would retain freedom to vote with or against the government on all other issues and would not take on any ministries. This model would give the Greens the freedom to oppose the government on an issue-by-issue basis, avoid needing to join a day-to-day governing partnership with a party with whom they have a poor relationship. It also allows the Greens to retain a separate identity and still campaign against the government at the next election. On the downside, it dramatically restricts the ability of the Greens to influence the policy direction of the ACT. While they would achieve some policy concessions and would have the balance of power in regards to legislation, they would not be able to demonstrate their ability to govern by holding a ministry.
On the other hand, the Greens could move towards a full coalition with Labor or the Liberals. This would involve the Greens taking on one or more ministries within a coalition cabinet consisting of ministers from two different parties. The two parties would agree to a common policy platform, made up of an amalgam of the two parties’ election platforms. It could involve the Greens taking on the Deputy Chief Minister position. On the plus side, Greens Ministers holding portfolios such as Transport or Education could have dramatically greater impacts on the ACT’s policy agenda than minor policy concessions given by a government in exchange for arms-length support. It would also give the Greens the first opportunity to demonstrate an ability to govern competently and move away from a constant crossbench/oppositional role.
On the downside, a full coalition would tie the Greens to every bad and/or unpopular decision made by the Labor or Liberal government. The Greens would also be permanently outvoted in cabinet and in any joint party room. History in New Zealand suggests that minor parties working in coalition with a major party suffer at the following election, while the major party partner tends to benefit from incumbency much more clearly.
There is a third alternative, namely that the Greens would take ministries outside of cabinet. This arrangement was used in the second Carnell government, for independent Health Minister Mike Moore, as well as in the last Labour government in New Zealand, which appointed New Zealand First leader Winston Peters as Foreign Minister and United Future leader Peter Dunne as Revenue Minister. In all these cases, these ministers were only bound to cabinet solidarity in their portfolios. This resulted in the spectacle of the NZ Foreign Minister criticising the New Zealand government’s decision to sign a free trade agreement with China. This would likely be much better for the Greens than a full coalition, although Labor would tend to see it as the worst of both worlds. It would give up ministries without gaining control over the Greens’ political agenda.
The final consideration is how many ministries the Greens would take if they were to take on ministerial portfolios. The current Labor government included 9 MLAs, 5 of whom were ministers. These proportions were reflected in the numbers of MLAs and Cabinet ministers in each of Labor’s factions. If this was reflected in any deal, a Labor-Green ministry would include 4 Labor ministers to represent the 7 Labor MLAs, and 2 Greens ministers to repreent the four Greens MLAs. A similar proportion would see the Greens have two ministries out of five in a Liberal-Green ministerial arrangement. Although I’m sure both Labor and Liberal would prefer a smaller Greens presence.