Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Compliant Coalitionists: Voting Patterns in the Tasmanian Lower House

Advance summary:

1. In Tasmania's current Labor-Green coalition-governed Parliament, votes on the floor of the Parliament in which the Greens vote with the Liberals are rare.

2. The most common voting pattern by far is that Labor and the Greens vote on one side and the Liberals on the other.

3. Yet this was the least common voting pattern by far under Labor majority rule between 2002 and 2010.

4. The pattern in the current parliament is also very different to the previous minority government situation in the state. 

5. The formation of a formal coalition between Labor and the Greens appears to have assisted in reducing the proportion of times that the parties disagree with each other, and especially the chance of Labor-introduced legislation being voted down.  This has apparently increased the stability of the minority parliament.

6.  However this has come at the cost of both the transparency lauded by advocates of minority government and its genuine "Laborness" as understood in the Tasmanian context.

7. The view that the major parties are "Laborials" and agree on nearly everything with the Greens as the real "opposition" is not consistent with any data about voting on the floor of parliament.

A strange thing happened this week during debate on the many proposed changes to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act.  A proposal by Labor to grant "faith-based" schools the right to preferentially enrol religious students in cases of competition for enrolments or waiting lists was shot down on both sides: by the Greens, who did not support the policy at all, and by the Liberals, who wanted it to go much further.  (For the record, where a school receives even one cent per annum in state funding or financial support at either state or federal level, I am strongly with the Greens on this.  If a school wants to run entirely using private money, with no government assistance of any sort at all, then and only then will I support its right to enrol whoever it likes.)

This was an example of what was supposed to happen in the Tasmanian hung parliament, according to defenders of minority government: a transparent display of the party positions of all three parties on the floor of the House, with the outcome determined by agreement of two of the parties.  (Though in this case, it was a strange variant even of that, with the Liberals effectively supporting the Greens' policy so they could continue pushing for more than Labor's).   But in the current Tasmanian parliament, which features a Labor-Green coalition, it has been one of very few examples of exceptions that prove the rule.

I analysed the voting records of the House of Assembly via online Hansard for the entirity of the current Parliament, in an attempt to count the number of times each party had stood by itself against the other two.  My quick search method was to find votes by using the search term "Teller", which brings up recorded divisions on which tellers were appointed to count the votes for either side.  This does not record all votes that occur in the Parliament; for instance the election for the Deputy Speakership (on which the Greens and Liberals co-operated to elect the Greens' Tim Morris over Labor's Brenton Best) is not included in the sample. And in some cases the voting breakdown does not appear, because no division is called for.  I also do not guarantee that the Hansard search engine has successfully retrieved all divisions.  But overall the picture should be fairly representative.

A few method notes: in compiling the figures used for the graph below I have treated votes as "other" (shown in a colour I'll call "yellow") only when the members of a party split in their voting, and not when somebody abstained (it is difficult to distinguish between deliberate abstentions and unpaired absence.)  I have also treated two votes as the same in some obvious cases where, for instance, one party proposed an amendment which was defeated, and the motion was then immediately voted for by both the other parties.  However, where there are several different votes on aspects of a single view, I have considered them independently.

This is the graph showing who was the odd party out most often in the post-2010 Parliament, in which no party holds a majority:
2010-? Labor-Green Coalition
 (blue: Liberal vs Green+Labor, green: Green vs Labor+Liberal, red: Labor vs Green+Liberal, yellow: other)

The commonest voting pattern,occurring 69% of the time, has involved the Liberal Party on one side and the Labor and Green coalition on the other.  The Labor and Green coalition partners have voted on opposite sides of 27% of divisions, but in most such cases Labor has got its way anyway because the Liberals have voted with Labor.  Only in about 5% of votes have we seen the Liberals and Greens combine to vote down Labor.  Generally these motions (eg the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the referral of Tote Tasmania's viability to Priveleges, and an amendment to a motion involving Scottsdale sawmills) have been hardly big-ticket items.  The question of confidence in former Minister for Children, Lin Thorp, while significant, was also not exactly a core political issue flashpoint.

Votes coded in yellow, as not neatly fitting the pattern, include same-sex marriage (on which Labor speaker Michael Polley not only voted with the Liberals but vacated the chair to do so), a motion concerning Tote on which the Greens' Kim Booth voted with the Liberals, and a Relationships Act amendment bill on which religious conservative "Liberals" Michael Ferguson, Rene Hidding and ex-Family-Firster Jacquie Petrusma voted against everybody else. 

By comparison, it is useful to look at the 1996-8 Parliament.  This was a chaotic Parliament that resulted from the one-term Liberal majority government under Ray Groom losing its majority, along with a fair slice of the plot.  With numbers at 16 Liberal, 14 Labor, 4 Green and 1 Independent, Labor refused to take government with Green support.  As Liberal Premier Ray Groom had promised to govern in majority, he resigned and Tony Rundle became the new Liberal Premier, of a minority government with very limited confidence and supply support from the Tasmanian Greens.

What resulted was a turbulent game of cutthroat in which the Rundle Government frequently governed in name only:
1996-8 Liberal Minority Govt (Minimal Green support)
 (I have disregarded the vote of independent Bruce Goodluck in forming the above diagram.  For instance if Goodluck voted with the Greens against both majors, I have treated that as a case of the Greens being the odd party out.)

The Liberal-Green partners of sorts only voted Labor down together on 42% of divisions in this Parliament, and while the Liberals would fairly often pass bills with Labor support, on fully one-third of the divisions in this Parliament they ended up on the losing side.

Comparing the two parliaments, it turns out that the proportion of bills with the Greens on one side and the two majors on the other is virtually identical (22% in 2010-? vs 23% in 1996-8).  The change is that when the Greens do side with a major party, they have increased their tendency to side with Labor from 56% in 1996 (when Labor was the nominal Opposition to an equally nominal Liberal Government) to 94% now (when in formal coalition with the Labor Party.)

Some might argue this comes from the change in who is in Government.  One might expect that the party in Government might originate the most motions, and it's to be expected that Labor as the most centrist party would get more of its motions through and hence more rarely be the odd one out.  But firstly, while I didn't keep figures on it, I did notice that in the 1996-8 Parliament quite a lot of Labor/Green motions were passed, as opposed to Labor and Green just blocking government legislation.  Secondly, the current parliament creates a striking contrast to the recent majority Labor governments.

Here are the same charts for the 2002-6 and 2006-10 Labor majority parliaments, each of which had a balance of 14 Labor, 7 Liberal and 4 Green:

2002-6 Labor Majority Government

2006-10 Labor Majority Government

(I have not looked at the 1998-2002 Labor majority regime in which the Greens had just a single member, but I expect the pattern there would be similar, and perhaps more difficult to collect data for because votes objected to just by the Greens would have just one dissenter.)

The most common pattern in both these parliaments (42% and 51% of votes respectively) involved both the Liberal and Green parties voting against the majority Labor Government.  The next most common (40% and 41%) involved the Greens voting on their own.  Cases in which the Liberals appeared on one side, and Labor and the Greens on the other, were not very common in the 2002-6 Parliament (15% of cases) and had almost disappeared in 2006-10 (just 8%).

Yet that latter voting pattern is now the commonest.

Of course, there is variation in the range of issues canvassed between parliaments.  And the current Labor-Green coalition has been especially lucky in that the forestry industry has been so economically troubled during its reign that forestry issues (a frequent source of divisions between the two parties in the past) have been largely shuffled off into a prolonged (and in my political view, mostly farcical) "peace deal" process.

But I suggest that the major cause for the large difference in voting patterns in this Parliament compared to the others discussed, is that the Greens are "in the tent", through their holding of two seats in the nine-member Cabinet.  The agreement between Labor and the Greens entitles the two Greens in Cabinet to absent themselves from Cabinet discussion if they wish to retain the ability to vote against something, but in that case they will not influence Labor's policy.  Furthermore, the voting power of the two Greens in any case where the Labor Cabinet members are split, and also and perhaps more importantly the desire that the coalition runs smoothly,  mean that stances taken by the Government tend to represent a hybrid Labor-Green view rather than a distinctively Labor position.

This also means that a great deal of the political process that determines how Tasmania runs is happening behind closed doors between Labor and the Greens, rather than as a result of each party putting its proposals on the floor of Parliament and either gaining support from them for another party or not (as in the 1996-8 parliament).  And this means the government-on-the-floor-of-parliament political openness and transparency that is often argued to be a benefit of minority government no longer exists all that often.

It has been sacrificed for the sake of what up until now has been stability (and also the sake of obtaining the Greens' support in the first place) but that this sacrifice was even made speaks loudly against the lauding of minority government as a venue for political transparency.  The Labor-Green coalition is not only as opaque as a majority government (in that decisions on government policy are made in Cabinet not on the floor of Parliament) but arguably even more opaque, in that the outcome of those decisions cannot be predicted on the basis of a single party's policies.

After the 2006 election (in which Labor retained its majority despite having at one stage had bookmaker odds of 9-1 against doing so) I wrote this piece to try to explain why the cheerleading for minority government by the usual Tasmanian circle of easy intellectual go-tos had failed to cut through.  I argued that attempts to compare Tasmanian and European minority government situations were unsound because Tasmanian minority governments were inherently unstable in ways that European cases were not, and that the electorate had good reason to be cautious.

Even going into a 2010 election, voters did not want a minority government, with 67% hoping a majority government would be the result of the poll (though that included 12% who piously desired a majority Green win).  However, those voters preferring a major party were so split in their preference as to which major party should govern, that there was no hope of one arising.  A dramatic joint intercession by former Premiers Gray and Rundle (Liberal) and Field and Lennon (Labor) had little effect because those heeding its call to support a majority government had no idea how to attempt this at the ballot box.

It seems the Labor and Green parties have rightly realised that they needed to try to offer something different from the instabilities of 1989-92 and 1996-8.  Thus, they have worked together in a coalition government which to this point has appeared stable, though if the forestry "peace process" eventually collapses I would not be certain that that will continue.  Even so, it has come at a price, because while those who voted for a stable Labor government have got their stability, they've got a watered-down version Labor that many of them do not understand or relate to, and it is no surprise that the Labor side of the coalition is being devoured in polling while the Greens are facing a much smaller swing against them and may still poll a historically reasonable vote.  It is no more evident than in the transformation of the Deputy Premier, Bryan Green, once seen as one of the parliament's more ardent pro-forestry voices, who now comes across as a mild-mannered pragmatist defender of the peace talks.

The dramatic swings seen over time between the votes for the Tasmanian major parties, which as Antony Green once noted are not usually seen in other state elections, especially result from the votes of a certain kind of voter whose primary concern is majority government for pro-industry reasons.  These voters represent perhaps a fifth, or perhaps even a quarter, of the Tasmanian voter base.  There is every sign on current polling that these voters realise the Liberal Party can win majority government while the Labor Party is deeply unlikely to avoid a large swing against it, and that for this reason they will vote Liberal almost unanimously when the state next goes to the polls. 

But they are not the only voters who view their politics through a simple spectrum. It has long been a common viewpoint among diehard Greens supporters (not that there are so many of this kind left, with some of the extremists now being too much holier-than-thou to still support the party) that the Greens represent the true "opposition" in Tasmania and that the major parties are "Laborials" who support each other on more or less everything.  This analysis shows that while this may be the case on a small number of major issues, particularly forestry, the pattern of Labor and the Liberals voting together against the Greens has not been the dominant pattern on the floor of the House under a Liberal minority government, a Labor majority government or the current arrangement. (And I haven't checked 1992-6 yet but I'd bet that the commonest pattern in that parliament was Labor and the Greens both voting against the Liberals.)

Under a majority Labor government the "Laborial" pattern became almost as common as the pattern of Liberal and Green against Labor, but to listen to those who use the term one would expect it to appear at least 80% of the time.  It does not, and perhaps in a Parliament in which Labor and the Liberals vote together against the Greens just 22% of the time this overrated, simplistic "Laborial" cliche can finally be, belatedly, consigned to bed.

(Disclaimer: this site always distinguishes between capital-G "Greens" (ie members of the party) and small-g "greens" (ie people with generally green political views but not necessarily supporting the party).  The "CONTRA-GREEN" in this site's heading should be read as the latter.)

Follow-up (1:40 pm, Monday): I note, as an example of the likely response to my debunking of the "Laborial" cliche, John Biggs' claim on TT that the pattern "only demonstrates that most conflicts are indeed contrived—on most major issues of principle Labor and Liberal are are as at one".  No evidence of contrivance is presented.  An alternative is that there are many people who hold views of what "issues of principle" are "major" that simply differ from those of John Biggs and other users of the "Laborial" tag. The recent Anti-Discrimination changes, which impact greatly on the education system among other things, and on which all three parties took different views at times, were an example of this.


  1. Interesting. I am not familiar with Tasmanian State politics, and this is an useful introduction.

  2. To those that live here the idea that Tasmanian government is mostly conducted secretly behind closed doors is hardly a shocker


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