Minority rule – get used to it

07 Mar 16

First published in the Sunday Business Post 6 March 2016

Elections are no longer a competition among centre parties

Fianna Fáil’s strategic objective from the outset of the campaign was to put the option of a minority government firmly on the table. The party’s preparations for this eventuality were evident last Monday when it set the agenda early for talks by publishing a detailed shopping list of political reforms. Fianna Fáil had wised up to the changing electoral landscape in Europe.

Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands have had minority governments since the global economic crisis began in 2008. All these countries, like Ireland, have proportional representation electoral systems. Hung parliaments are not unusual in countries with a hybrid form of proportional representation such as New Zealand, Germany, Scotland and Wales.

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Fine Gael did badly, its worst election since 1992, because it followed the British Conservatives’ campaign strategy. The British majoritarian electoral system tends to produce absolute legislative majorities which are unusual in the European context. Only one in eight of all western European governments formed since 1945 has been single parties winning an absolute majority in parliament.

On the weekend before polling, senior Fine Gael sources said its support would return above 30 per cent, because this was what happened to the Tories in the final week of its campaign. Fine Gael used the wrong playbook.

Elections are no longer a competition among centre parties, but between the centre and anti-establishment parties. Consensus politics has been replaced by minority governments, coalitions between bitter political rivals and fragmented parliaments. Proportional representation electoral systems tend to give rise to fragmentation.

The reality of Europe’s new electoral landscape is that government formation is now a choice between instability or ideological incoherence. Frank Underwood of House of Cards would interpret this as the choice between being vulnerable in power or feeling secure in opposition.

Do minority governments work?

The 2010 Dutch minority government lasted for two years and 22 days. In 2014, the Swedish Social Democrats rejected a grand coalition with their historical rivals of the centre-right to form a minority government. It lasted two months after failing to pass a budget.

The Scottish National Party fared better as a minority government in 2007, lasting four years. The Portuguese minority government was formed last November.

The Liberal minority governments in Canada during the 1960s confronted issues traditionally left on the back burner. Lester Pearson, a son of Irish parents, implemented universal healthcare, student loans and pension reform. Canada has had 11 minority governments since 1921, with an average lifespan of one year, seven months and 27 days, compared with four years and four days for majorities.

The Swedish minority Social Democrat government of the early 1990s resolved the country’s acute budget crisis. So too did Charles Haughey’s minority Fianna Fáil government of 1987, supported from the backbenches by Alan Dukes’s Tallaght Strategy.

A new fiscal policy, much of it not declared in the electoral campaign, introduced pay cuts to civil servants, abolished government agencies and cuts in public spending. A new initiative, the Programme for National Recovery, which had laid dormant since the 1970s, introduced the principle of wage-bargaining between the government, unions, employers and farmers.

Denmark has had more minority governments than majority ones since World War II. Yet the Scandinavian country consistently performs very well in many measures of wellbeing relative to most other countries in the OECD Better Life Index. It ranks well above average in work-life balance, environmental quality, civic engagement, education and skills, jobs and earnings, income and wealth, and personal security.

I lived in Australia during the Julia Gillard minority government. Despite the vitriolic, if not entertaining, infighting within her party, the Labor government passed more than 500 pieces of legislation, including signature reforms in education, disability and climate change.

Although minority governments can be messy, parliament tends to become stronger because government’s dominance over parliamentary business diminishes. Parliament may take longer to pass bills and amend them more heavily, but the overall volume of legislation is unlikely to diminish greatly.

The policy process is much different. Minority governments must be more open to amendment and evidence-based debate on legislation.

A 2009 report by the British Institute for Government suggests that parties should prepare before the election for negotiations immediately afterwards – as Fianna Fáil has clearly done and Fine Gael did not.

Incidentally, an unintended consequence of the election result will be a greater understanding by the Irish public of the Northern Ireland Executive, which has operated under these conditions for 13 years.

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