Hanging parliaments

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Two separate stories have emerged in the last few days of governments that could lose their majority with the resignations of their own party’s parliamentarians.

In the Northern Territory, Labor MP Alison Anderson has resigned from the party, and is yet to make clear which party she would support in office. The last election saw Labor win 13 seats, the opposition Country Liberals won 11 and conservative independent Gerry Wood won the remaining seat. Marion Scrymgour subsequently resigned from the ALP in early 2009, but committed to supporting the Labor government, keeping it in office as a minority government. Scrymgour has rejoined the ALP following Anderson’s resignation.

The Northern Territory previously had ‘semi-fixed terms’, with an election only allowed to be called in the last year of a term. After Paul Henderson went to a disastrous early election last year, this was replaced with complete fixed terms. As Antony Green points out, this makes the Northern Territory the first jurisdiction to see a government lose its majority, forcing a possible ‘baton change’. In the case that the government were to lose a vote of no confidence, the opposition would have eight days to form a government with majority support (or the Labor Party could elect a new leader who could garner support from an independent). If this could not be achieved, an election would be triggered.

These sorts of results have been largely absent since the creation of the two-party system around 1910, although John Curtin took office mid-term from various conservative governments. You could argue that the Labor split of 1917 similarly saw mid-term changes of government, although in these cases the new governments included many members of the former government. Update: commenters have pointed out that there were midterm changes of government in the ACT in the early 1990s in the early days of self-government and in Queensland in 1996.

Assuming the Country Liberals take the earliest opportunity to call a no-confidence vote, we could be facing a new CLP government, or a fresh election, by the end of August. Even if the CLP can stitch together a majority, however, they may determine it is in their interests to hold back and wait for an election they would likely win, and wait for the eight days to pass.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the governing Fianna Fail-Green coalition has stumbled further towards defeat, with two Fianna Fail TDs resigning the party whip and moving to the crossbenches over local issues. Following on from devestating local elections and the loss of one of their seats at a by-election in June, this reduces the government to an 83-81 majority, with one seat vacant.

The government consists of 72 Fianna Fail, 6 Greens, 2 former Progressive Democrats and three other independents, for a total of 83. The opposition consists of 52 Fine Gael, 20 Labour, 4 Sinn Fein and three independents, for a total of 79. On certain policy issues (probably including the expected harsh budget in November) these two splitters can be expected to vote with the opposition.

The Speaker can be expected to support the government in the event of a tie, while the vacant seat is that of Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher, who was elected to the European Parliament in June. His seat is in Donegal South West, where the government parties won 52% in 2007, in comparison with 47% for opposition parties. Considering the scale of the collapse of Fianna Fail’s support, it has to be judged likely that this seat will be lost, meaning that the opposition will only need one other TD to defect for them to gain a majority.

While Fine Gael and Labour could try to stitch together a new coalition government, considering their high poll ratings you would have to think they would support an early election and form a relatively stable government, with Fianna Fail in danger of coming third.

The position is disastrous for the Greens, who would likely be wiped out in such an election. This puts them in an impossible position. They can bring down the government, regain goodwill from their traditional voters, but likely still be heavily punished, or delay the election as long as possible and be possibly destroyed in punishment for maintaining Fianna Fail in government for even longer. I personally think that the Greens will probably lose all six of their seats either way, but by bringing down the government they regain some goodwill and will hopefully survive to fight another day. If they don’t act against the government now, they will go down in history as Fianna Fail apologists and won’t be able to return.

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