Minority Government

A minority government exists where a government lacking an outright majority of seats depends for its survival on the support of other parties or independents in the lower house.

The minor parties and/or independents are said to hold the balance of power in the lower House.

A party or coalition does not have to have an outright majority of seats in the lower house to be able to form a government. The key to the survival of a government in a parliamentary system depends on its ability to maintain the confidence, or support, of the lower house.

Equally, a government lacking the support of a majority can survive if the other groups in the House are unable to unite to express a lack of confidence.

Minority governments were common at the federal level in the first decade of Federation (1901-10), but there have been only two occasions since – 1940 and 2010 – when minority governments were formed.

Following the 1940 election, the ALP had 36 seats, as did the coalition parties. The balance of power was held by two independents, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson. The United Australia Party government led by Robert Menzies survived for a year. After Menzies was replaced as prime minister by Arthur Fadden in 1941, Coles and Wilson withdrew their support from the coalition parties, transferring it to the ALP, thus making John Curtin the Prime Minister.

Gillard Minority Labor Government

Following the 2010 federal election, the ALP won 72 seats, Coalition 72, Independent Nationals 1, Greens 1, Independent 4. With the support of the Greens member (Bandt) and three of the Independents (Wilkie, Windsor and Oakeshott), Julia Gillard was able to form a minority government which could muster 76 votes to 74 in the House of Representatives.

House of Representatives – 2010
Party No. Seats
ALP
72
LNP
72
Greens
1
Independent National (subsequently joined LNP)
1
Independents
4
Total
150


NOVEMBER 2011 UPDATE:

In November 2011, the Gillard Government’s position on the floor of the House was strengthened after the Labor Speaker, Harry Jenkins, resigned and was replaced by a Liberal member, Peter Slipper. Since the Speaker does not cast a deliberative vote unless the numbers are tied, the government’s position improved from 75-74 to 76-73.

APRIL 2012 UPDATE:

In April 2012, Peter Slipper stood aside as Speaker, after sexual harassment allegations against him were brought before the Federal Court. The House is to be presided over by the Deputy Speaker, Anna Burke. Since Slipper is officially still Speaker, he will not take part in parliamentary debate or vote in divisions. The government’s numbers on the floor of the House are now 75-73.

OCTOBER 2012 UPDATE:

In October 2012, Peter Slipper resigned as Speaker. His deputy, Anna Burke, became the new Speaker. The government’s numbers on the floor remained at 75-73, although Slipper has voted with the government on a number of key measures, giving it 76-73.

SEPTEMBER 2013 UPDATE:

Julia Gillard was deposed as leader of the ALP, and as prime minister, in June 2013. Kevin Rudd returned to the prime ministership but led the ALP to defeat at the general election on September 7. However, the minority government and the 43rd Parliament from which it was drawn ran full term. A no-confidence motion against the government was never moved.

Recent State Examples

In 1999, Steve Bracks formed a minority Labor government in Victoria which survived with the support of three rural independents in the Legislative Assembly.

Legislative Assembly – Victoria 2002
Party No. Seats
ALP
44
Coalition
41
Independents
3
Total
88

 

Within months of taking office, the ALP won another two seats from the coalition at by-elections, giving it an outright majority of 46-39-3. Bracks chose to maintain the arrangements with the independents for the remainder of his first term.

A different situation existed in Tasmania between 1996-98:

House of Assembly – Tasmania 1996
Party No. Seats
ALP
14
Liberal
16
Greens
4
Independent
1
Total
35

 

Even though it was outnumbered by the combination of all other groups, the Liberal Party governed because the ALP and the Greens were unwilling to work together, as they had done some years earlier. The ALP would not support a no-confidence motion against the government, hence the government survived, despite lacking a majority of seats in the lower house.

Current Minority Governments

  • At the end of 2010, four of Australia’s nine governments were in a minority. The Federal Labor government governed with the support of four crossbenchers. The Tasmanian Labor government survived by forming a coalition with the Greens, as did the ACT Labor government. In the Northern Territory, the Labor government relied on the support of an independent.
  • By March 2014, only two minority governments existed. The ALP-Greens coalition in the ACT remained but the new Abbott government ruled with a substantial majority federally, as did the new CLP government in the Northern Territory. At elections held on March 15, the Tasmanian government was replaced by a majority Liberal government but the South Australian Labor government was forced into a minority arrangement with the support of an independent.
House of Assembly – South Australia 2014
Party No. Seats
ALP
23
Liberal
22
Independent
2
Total
47

 

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