The Australian Labor Party is edging towards 76 seats and possible majority government after the electorate abandoned the Coalition at the federal election.
But regardless of whether it can reach a majority or not, Labor needs to learn the right lessons from the Morrison government – as well as from its last two terms in power between 2007 and 2013.
These experiences could point to adopting either a more take-it-or-leave-it antagonistic approach to politics, prevalent in the Anglosphere countries of the US, UK and Australia, or a more European, collaborative style.
Politics is the art of compromise – nobody gets exactly what they want. But adopting a European approach to parliamentary negotiations could usher in an enduring golden era of stable and progressive government, with more generous and compassionate national politics.
The take-it-or-leave-it Anglo approach
The first term of Labor’s previous government between 2007 and 2010 was dominated by Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership and his attempts to pass his climate change legislation.
The Greens considered the package too generous to polluters and ineffective in addressing climate change, so they blocked it in the Senate where they held the balance of power.
Despite Labor’s rhetoric that the Greens are therefore largely to blame for Australia’s subsequent history of climate inaction, the reality is far more complicated.
Bob Brown, then leader of the Greens, wrote to Rudd after the first vote on the legislation in late 2009 seeking talks but received no reply. The Greens then put a compromise plan to Labor after the second vote, but it was again rebuffed.
Despite these overtures, in April 2010 Rudd announced his government had abandoned the legislation, which was the beginning of the end for his tenure as prime minister.
In retrospect, perhaps the Greens should have just passed the bill. But the government’s take-it-or-leave-it approach was extremely unhelpful in progressing the legislation. This approach is somewhat typical of the aggressive style of parliamentary politics in Anglosphere countries.
Most Anglosphere parliaments, including Australia’s House of Representatives, have single-member electorates, which generally results in having two combative parties that take turns in governing.
This is very different to the more cooperative European models of government.
The collaborative European approach
After the 2010 election, Julia Gillard’s Labor entered minority government in a power-sharing agreement with Adam Bandt of the Greens and two independents in the lower house.
This approach was more reminiscent of European politics, where most parliaments have multi-member electorates. In these electoral systems (also employed in Australia’s Senate) small parties have a greater chance of entering parliament and the large parties rarely achieve a majority.
It’s therefore common for European parties to enter post-election negotiations to form ad hoc coalitions or power-sharing arrangements.
This happened in Germany in 1998, when the left-leaning Social Democrat Party formed a national governing coalition with the German Greens, with the latter supplying the foreign minister.
A similar arrangement resulted from German national elections last year, with the addition of the liberal Free Democrats to create a three-party coalition. The Greens again supplied the foreign minister, as well as the economy minister.
In South Australia, Labor has adopted aspects of this approach by strategically offering independents in regional and traditionally conservative seats – and even a Nationals MP – ministries in its governments, even if Labor doesn’t require their votes. This collegiality has been continued by the recently elected Malinauskas government, even though it has a governing majority. This canny strategy will have contributed to Labor being in power for 20 out of the previous 24 years by the end of this term.
The Gillard government’s minority position forced it to adopt this more European-style consultative posture and it resulted in the most productive parliament in Australia’s history, measured by acts passed per day.
It legislated a price on carbon, which, if it hadn’t been repealed by the Abbott government, would have resulted in 72 million tonnes less carbon emissions according to research in 2020 by the Australia Institute.
Which style will Albanese take?
Labor must learn the right lessons from its last stint in office.
It will face a parliament unlike any previous government, with a significantly enhanced third force comprising the Greens, the “teals” and other independents.
Labor could entrench a progressive majority in parliament for the foreseeable future by rejecting the antagonistic, duopolistic Anglo approach to parliamentary politics that characterised Labor’s first term of government last time around. Instead, it should shift towards the more negotiated, collaborative Euro approach of its second term from 2010 on.
Negotiating in good faith with the crossbench will show teal electorates their MPs are making real progress in the halls of power on the issues they were elected to pursue – primarily climate change, an integrity commission and gender inequality. These electorates would therefore be more likely to vote teal again in future.
Single member electorates make it difficult for independents or small parties to win elections, but once they’re in they can be hard to dislodge, as the experience of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Bob Katter, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines demonstrates.
If the teal seats continue to elect independents, the Coalition will struggle to regain majority government again.
Whether Labor manages to achieve a governing majority in the lower house or not, it will still need support from the Greens and progressive independent David Pocock in the Senate to pass legislation.
Fortunately, Albanese seems to have the temperament that would favour a Euro approach. On election night, he promised to promote “unity and optimism, not fear and division”.
Nevertheless, both Albanese and other senior Labor members have already been out in force since the election stating they have a mandate from the electorate to deliver their election policies, including a 43% cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 – but no more. This is despite the ALP receiving less than 33% of the primary vote.
Most of the teal independents have policies of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. And the Greens, who received almost 12% of the primary vote, want a 75% cut. A significant chunk of the electorate therefore voted for much stronger action on climate change.
Labor would do well to compromise with the crossbench in those areas where common ground can be found to build and consolidate an enduring progressive future for Australia.