Minority government sounds crazy but just might work
“I’m sorry I’m late, but I have piles.” With these immortal words, the former member for the South Australian seat of Mallee, rogue rural Liberal turned independent Peter Lewis, apologised for his late arrival at a scheduled press conference on the steps of State Parliament from North Terrace.
Coming from anybody else the words would have caused shock. Not so in the case of Peter Lewis, a man who made the word maverick seem somehow inadequate to capture the bizarre nature of his unlikely life in the public arena.
Lewis not only looked like Yosemite Sam, he acted like him. In an all-night conscience vote on euthanasia in the mid-1990s, the socially conservative Lewis surprised colleagues by rising to support the legislation on the grounds that, while working as a mercenary in the Thai jungle some years ago, he shot dead one of his fellow soldiers in a mercy killing after he had been mortally wounded by Marxist guerrillas.
Lewis had also been on the receiving end of a firearm. He was shot in the arse by a duck hunter on his farm in the Mallee. And speaking of ducks, Lewis opposed a bill to decriminalise prostitution on the grounds that he did not want South Australia to descend to the moral depravity of the Orient, claiming it was possible in the former Portuguese colony of Macau to pay to have sex with a duck that had been inserted in a log. The claim inspired one of the greatest ever parliamentary interjections when Labor MP Pat Conlon described the then Liberal Premier John Olsen, beset by an IT outsourcing scandal, as being in “more trouble than a duck in a log in Macau”.
When South Australians went to the polls in 2002 neither side won a majority. And it was the Liberals who ended up as political dead ducks when Peter Lewis, who had served as a Liberal MP from 1979 until his expulsion for repeated ill-discipline in 2000, decided in his new capacity as an Independent to back Mike Rann’s Labor Party.
A minority Labor Government was formed. It was high-wire stuff. In light of Julia Gillard’s victory off the back of a deal with Greens and Independents, comparisons have been made with the coalition Victorian Premier Steve Bracks cobbled together to wrest power from Jeff Kennett. Bracks at least had the advantage of dealing with genuine independents who had a predictable and stated policy position on rural issues. Mike Rann was in charge of a circus – he made the notoriously unpredictable Lewis the independent speaker of the House, he angered many in Labor Caucus by appointing two members of the National Party, Karlene Maywald and Rory McEwen, to senior positions in the ministry, and he also secured the support of a former Olsen Government minister, Bob Such, to form a seriously shaky minority government.
Fast forward to 2010 and Mike Rann was this year re-elected for a third term, and reasonably comfortably, given he had to weather a salacious sex scandal in the lead-up to a campaign which often resembled a soap opera.
The Bracks Government was a pretty good government and the Rann Government has also been a pretty good government – certainly, Labor in Victoria and SA has incurred none of the voter rancour which has plagued the party in NSW and Queensland.
If Bracks and, particularly, Rann, could pull off this juggling act with the personnel available to them, there is obviously a precedent for Julia Gillard to do so at the national level.
The pressure of having to govern in the national interest and maintain some semblance of stability could provide an added impetus for sensible behaviour which doesn’t exist at the state level.
Gillard has to juggle several competing and often contradictory sets of interests. Labor’s formal alliance with the Greens will pressure the party into examining policies which will be seen as offensive by its new rural allies in Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The need for governments to make decisions may be slowed or at worst stymied entirely by Oakeshott’s obsession with parliamentary reform. The support offered by Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie might be hard to maintain – his casual suggestion on Friday that he’d like the resources tax to be widened to cover more mining companies will have sent a shiver down Labor’s spine so early in this term.
One of Julia Gillard’s biggest problems during the campaign, and one which almost cost her victory, was the very public battle between the fake Julia, as forced up on her by advisors and strategists, and the real Julia, the plain-speaking, can-do, conviction politician who suddenly appeared to vanish the moment the campaign was called.
Her biggest personal challenge now will be to ensure that she can still be herself as she battles to balance the competing demands of the many divergent personalities within this fragile administration.
She can count herself lucky that Peter Lewis never went federal, and take some comfort in the fact that if Mike Rann could do it with the hand he was dealt, she too is in with a chance of making it through the term.
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