Every year around this time a slow news day story can be generated by reminding readers that it is x years since the Whitlam dismissal and what a terrible thing that was blah, blah, blah. Now we’re coming up to 40 years since the Whitlam government was first elected, that then got dismissed, and what a terrible thing that was blah, blah, blah.
George Williams has an op-ed in the SMH drawing out similarities between the Whitlam and Gillard governments.
Next month’s 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s election reminded me of striking similarities between the political landscape of 1975 and today. Both eras have seen a determined and focused opposition using every tool at their disposal to bring down a Labor government.
In each case, the opposition has sought to bring on an early poll by destabilising the government and undermining its legitimacy.
Well, yes. That is what the opposition is supposed to do. Force an early election and give the voters the opportunity to change the government. Yet I get the impression that Williams doesn’t really approve of such a thing.
This avenue to power has not been closed. A hostile Senate can still deny a government the money it needs to function. If this occurred, the Governor-General would again be put in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Nothing has been done to change Australia’s system of government to prevent this. Indeed, the failure to do so leaves it open for people to argue that Australians accept that this can occur again.
…the only thing that prevents an opposition leader from doing so is self restraint. If the opportunity beckons, there is no convention or rule to prevent the crisis of 1975 occurring again.
The Senate should be doing more to deny government spending money – not less. I am always appalled when I hear politicians speaking of ‘conventions’ that the Senate doesn’t withhold supply and the like. A Senate that does not review money bills and government spending is doing nothing.
What of the other point? Is there no mechanism to stop an opposition from bringing down a government by withholding supply? Yes there is. It is called the electorate. It is not enough to bring down the government in Canberra, the opposition has to win the subsequent election.
So if the Prime Minister follows an option pricing approach to calling the election then I predict the current PM will wait as long as possible before calling an election. But let’s imagine that an opposition leader had the ability to bring down the government by, say, withholding supply in the Senate. Would he go as soon as possible? No, I don’t think so. This looks to me like a first generation speculative attack model – the opposition leader will only bring down the government if and when he thinks that he can win the subsequent election. At the moment the current opposition leader must think he can win an election but he doesn’t have the numbers in either the House or the Senate. Usually, however, the government would have a comfortable majority in the House and stand a reasonable chance of winning an election so it wouldn’t always pay the opposition to withhold supply.
So elections work to restrain excessive political opportunism. That is why more elections are better than fewer elections and bringing down the government by hook or by crook doesn’t worry me, so long as they have to subsequently explain themselves to the voters.