How people elect parliaments
Ireland’s new Fine Gael-Independent government is at last getting underway, 11 weeks after the February election.
The new Enda Kenny Government has an apparently preposterous lack of parliamentary majority in the lower house of parliament, the Dáil.
On 6 May Kenny was formally re-elected Taoiseach (Prime Minister) by a Dáil resolution supported by just 59 of the 159 members – the presiding officer, opposition Fianna Fáil and Greens members and several independents abstaining from voting.
Not even all the nine independents in that total look entirely reliable, although three are to be appointed as ministers in the new government.
Commenter cbmelb, responding to a post on the story a few days ago, pointed out the highly unusual nature of this arrangement, which –
“… raises the concept of the “Loyal Opposition” to quite ludicrous heights as it appears to set out the areas where disagreement will be “off limits” between the two sides of the despatch box. It probably makes it a very brittle document (how will it deal with ‘black swans’ beyond its conception?) …”
The written agreement between the nation’s two main parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – has been released to the media. We’ll look at it in a bit of detail below, but first a little historical context for the new arrangement.
Minority governments are a regular event in Westminster parliaments, because leading political parties often fail to win a parliamentary majority in their own right.
Many governments are of course simply agreed coalitions of parties, amounting to parliamentary majorities in total.
In parliamentary democracies with proportional seat allocation electoral systems – such as those across most of Europe – coalitions are actually the norm, and single-party governments the exception.
Éire has had coalitions – and minority governments – led by each of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael during the past century.
In the UK wartime coalitions have been adopted in the past, and only recently the nation was governed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 to 2015.
Since the 1920s Australia and its major eastern states have regularly been governed by Liberal-National party coalitions.
In Australia there have also been cases of Labor governing in coalition with the Greens in Tasmania (in 1989 and again in 2010) and in the Australian Capital Territory (“ACT”) (in 2008 and 2012), in the more recent cases including Greens members in the ministries.
The Tasmanian Labor-Greens alliances have ended badly; support for the Greens is higher in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia, but so also is antipathy towards them by other voters, and each of the Labor-Green alliances have been punished at the following elections. The ACT electorate seems to be noticeably less negative about such alliances.
Ordinary minority government agreements
Another common outcome is the ordinary minority government, where a small cross-bench of independents must choose which of two major parties to support.
Such situations have occurred in Australia at the national level (in 2010) and in each of the states and territories (other than Tasmania, which has had Greens-determined minority governments) in the past quarter century: in South Australia in 1989, 1997 and 2002, in the ACT in 1992, 1995 and 1998, in NSW in 1991, Victoria in 1999, Western Australia in 2008, the Northern Territory in 2010 and Queensland in 2015.
Similar ‘support’ agreements with minor political parties – rather than individual independents – have been reached in the ACT in 2001 and in Tasmania in 1996 (the Greens this time allowing a Liberal state government).
The Australian Capital Territory figures heavily in the above examples. In the eight elections since the Territory’s government was established in 1989, only once (in 2004) was a single party elected to majority government. The original 1989 election result saw an Assembly so divided that the largest party held just 5 of the 17 seats; in the circumstances reliable political agreements proved elusive and governments were defeated and replaced twice during that term. The other six ACT elections have resulted in brokered, agreement-based and generally stable governments.*
The agreement which the Gillard Labor Australian government negotiated in 2010 was a support agreement with the Greens – one of a number of cross-bench agreements – to form a minority government, although the agreement served as much to secure the Greens’ upper house cooperation as to secure the vote of the single Greens lower house member.
The politically conventional solution to all these recent Australian minority circumstances is a written agreement between the party which takes government and the relevant cross-bench independents or parties. The key element of such agreements is an assurance to the government of the support of the cross-bench on all votes of confidence and (usually) on votes relating to the passage of annual budgets. Caveats relating to scandals or breaches of political faith might also be included.
In cases where the executive controls the fixing of election dates, agreement that parliaments will serve a full parliamentary term are normal, as are undertakings relating to amicable working relationships.
Several of these agreements have committed the incoming government to various ‘system of government’ reforms relating to parliamentary practices, electoral systems and institutions governing accountability such as public sector auditors or corruption commissions.
Finally, some agreements on specific policy matters have also been included, but also common have been acknowledgements that independents are at liberty to vote as they please on policy issues.
Across Australia these agreements have tended to stabilise governments, as the incentives for governments to launch provocative or politically extreme policies are minimised.
In Australia all these cross-bench agreements in recent years have served their purpose, resulting in stable government serving full terms. In none of these cases has a considered, written agreement failed to provide a stable term of government.
In one case an independent has disowned an agreement after concluding that an undertaking on a key policy matter has been breached; this was the 2012 decision of Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie that the Gillard government had failed to fulfil a an agreed commitment on gambling regulation. Wilkie’s decision did not however trigger a confidence crisis for the government.
In two cases – in NSW in 1992 and in the ACT in 2000 – a partnered cross-bench forced the resignation of a head of government over current controversies, but retained the governing party in office under a new leader.
There is no evidence that minority governments in general result in adverse economic or fiscal outcomes, as is sometimes alleged by critics of such arrangements.
Governments which lose narrow majorities
On other occasions, governments elected with slim majorities have fallen into a minority state following defections or by-elections. Lacking the stability of undertakings voluntarily entered into after elections, these events are usually disastrous for governments.
In the UK the Heath Conservative government lost its House of Commons majority at the elections in February 1974, leaving it with 4 fewer seats than the Labour party and with the balance of power held by 14 Liberals. After Heath could not secure Liberal backing, he yielded government to the larger Labour minority led by Harold Wilson, himself a former Prime Minister. Wilson governed uncertainly without a formal cross-bench agreement for 8 months, until the new election of December 1974 resulted in Labour winning just one more than half the seats. The Labour majority then dwindled into a minority due to seat losses over the next few years, and while Liberal party support allowed Labour to govern in quasi-coalition for a few years, by 1977 the government’s position was perilous which – with the nation’s economy undergoing serious difficulties throughout the decade – made governing very difficult. Wilson’s administration struggled on for two more years until the Conservative party’s landslide win in the 1979 election.
Two decades later the Conservative UK government of John Major also lost its thin majority due to seat losses in December 1996, although in any case the 1997 election (which Major also lost heavily) was due in just a few months.
In Queensland in 1995 the one-seat-majority Labor government lost office shortly into a term due to seat change at a by-election.
Ironically, three years later the same government achieved the rare feat of moving from a minority position into a majority one by winning a post-election by-election.
Queensland’s current Labor government, which won 44 of 89 seats in 2015 and now governs with an independent agreement, has recently seen two backbench members leave the governing party for the cross-bench. The result still leaves the government and opposition at 42-42 seats, with three of the five cross-bench members supporting the government.
The Irish situation in 2016
But returning to the Irish and their very divided 2016 election result. Far from being unfamiliar, the Irish have seen minority governments take office after no less than 14 of their 32 elections. (The Irish count the assemblies elected in 1918, 1921 and 1922 as the first three Dálaí, even though they were elected prior to the establishment of the independent nation).
Sinn Féin’s pro-treaty faction held government in minority in 1922. Fianna Fáil was able to form minority governments in 1932, 1933, 1937, 1943, 1951, 1961, 1982 and 1987. Fine Gael (and its predecessor party Cumann na nGaedheal) secured minority office in 1923, 1927 (twice), and in 1981, and has done so again in 2016. It has been common for minority governments to survive less than a full term, resulting in early elections.
The 1992-1997 Dáil saw two different majority coalition governments, after the Labour party switched partners. Whilst clearly a divided Dáil, these were not therefore technically minority governments.
So while Éire has just enjoyed a record unbroken run of 24 years of majority governments, the nation is hardly inexperienced with the alternative.
The recently elected 32nd Dáil has an unusually awkward 8 parties and 19 separate independents. Fine Gael has fallen sharply to 50 seats, while Fianna Fáil has risen sharply to 43. The apparently un-partnerable Sinn Féin party has 23 seats, Labour 7, and all the other parties just a handful each. No combination amounting to the majority target of 78 seats is at all obvious.
But what makes the Irish government formation process in 2016 different is not merely the multi-factor complexity of the negotiations, which might still have yielded a majority result had the political interests been otherwise. Even a ‘grand coalition’ of the two main parties was advocated by many and briefly considered.
What makes the 2016 process unique is the adoption of a genuinely new device: the major party of opposition formally agreeing to give up its traditional pattern of opposition conduct.
Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny retains office through the major party agreement
On this occasion, the key written agreement is not one with the cross-bench, but one between the two leading parties.
Only after this initial major party agreement was reached on 29 April was it possible for Fine Gael to proceed to secure secondary agreements with its actual partners in government.
The Irish process represents a significant difference from all the Australian agreement examples cited above.
The key features of the Confidence and Supply Arrangement for a Fine Gael-Led Government deserve attention.
The agreement includes ‘standard’ points on confidence and supply. It includes a number of policy statements at a fairly general level, under headings including ‘Ireland’s economy’ and ‘Creating Decent jobs and Supporting Enterprise’. It includes longer more detailed policy statements on the especially vexing political debate over water charging.
The agreement also includes wording on amicable working relationships. The text speaks of “an open approach to avoiding policy surprises” and states that “should an event arise that has potential to undermine this agreement efforts will be made to have it resolved by the two Party Leaders.” But while such statements are common in previous examples of cross-bench agreements, these expressions of goodwill are entirely unusual in government-to-opposition relations in Westminster systems.
Similarly, the agreement commits the government to “recognise Fianna Fáil’s right to bring forward policy proposals and bills to implement commitments in its own manifesto”, and to “allow any opposition Bills (that are not money bills) that pass 2nd stage, proceed to Committee stage within 10 working weeks”.
Again, these sort of acceptances of rights to reserve policy freedom, bring forward parliamentary business and have bills fully and fairly debated are democratic and reasonable, and are common in agreements with a cross-bench, but they are (sadly) not an established way of dealings with parliamentary oppositions.
It remains to be seen how political debates over popular opposition bills that secure the support of the Dáil will play out publicly if they directly refute the political direction, and especially the policies of economic stewardship, that the government wishes to take.
But perhaps the most telling line of agreement is that the government agrees to “accept that Fianna Fáil is an independent party in opposition and is not a party to the Programme for Government”.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of traditional support agreements, and goes more directly to the matter of ongoing political accountability.
Many of the minority governments mentioned above have experienced parliamentary motions being lost, or even legislation passed, where the cross-bench which supports them in government nevertheless combines with the opposition on the floor of parliament on specific issues.
But such instances have never been about major issues of governance or economic management. They have tended to relate to (relatively) minor matters of ministerial performance or accountability, launching inquiries into controversial issues, or legislation on social issues that can easily be distinguished from the primary executive responsibilities of government.
Where the recent Irish agreement may potentially take the nation is into new territory about what acts of public management, and what political or economic outcomes, the executive can be held accountable for.
Moreover, it may also become unclear what outcomes the Fianna Fáil opposition can itself be held accountable for. The freedom of the opposition to block the government on any matter having been partially surrendered, the traditional Westminster expectation that all the acts of government are constantly being competitively tested will no longer be completely fulfilled.
Presumably the Irish opposition will still probe and attack issues of competence and performance, ministerial scandals and similar political issues in the traditional manner. But the completion of each such debate may leave Fianna Fáil in an ambiguous position in deciding how far matters are to be pushed, and how it votes on key motions.
Perhaps of more general public concern given the unhappy state of the Irish economy and fiscal position of the government is whether, amid political manoeuvring over the Kenny government’s policies and attempts to take initiatives, it becomes unclear where the final accountability lies for the nation’s economic or fiscal results.
The role of the nation’s media in coherently understanding and explaining the actions of the various parliamentary actors, and assisting the public to hold each faction accountable, will be crucial.
Finally, the FF-FG deal is not even necessarily an agreement for the whole term of the Dáil, but only until the end of 2018 – slightly more than half way through the five-year term – when “both parties to this agreement will review this Framework Agreement”.
Implicitly, that allows Fianna Fáil to manoeuvre for a fresh arrangement early in 2019. Of course, such an attempt may simply trigger a fresh election.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin
The background to Fianna Fáil’s strategic position explains much about what they have chosen to do. Handed a massive flaying by voters at the 2011 election, by 2016 they have only partly recovered their public support. The recent elections must encourage them, but leader Micheál Martin and his colleagues seem to have calculated that their recovery is fragile, and would have been damaged by to-close an alliance with Fine Gael, which has itself been flayed in turn at the 2016 election.
By refusing the grand coalition proposal and instead negotiating a very stand-offish form of support, Fianna Fáil have avoided a fresh election – which might have gained them little or no improvement – and laid the basis for better gains in the future, especially if Fine Gael finds the conduct of government in these circumstances difficult and unpopular.
In short, Fianna Fáil have taken a medium-term, rather than a short-term, approach to maximising their political position.
But Fianna Fáil may also have negotiated itself into an unusually strong political position. On the accountability issues mentioned above, the opposition may enjoy the condition of power without responsibility, able to thwart the direction of Fine Gael whilst rebuilding its public standing as a critic of any failure of the government to restore the state of the nation’s affairs.
It may be that the 2016 FF-FG agreement is an unfair bargain. No doubt it was negotiated in conditions where all sides had a weak bargaining position. But through it Fianna Fáil – by being willing to sacrifice the temptation of executive power – may have negotiated itself into the more powerful strategic position.
As the fate of the agreement unfolds, it will deserve a lot more analysis than normal minority government agreements.
*The author of this post was Adviser to one of the independent ACT MLAs involved in the 1995 and 1998 cross-bench agreements, and Senior Adviser (chief of staff) to the same MLA (Michael Moore) during his term as a minister in the 1998-2001 ACT Government.