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Why a coalition between Queensland Labor and the Greens would work

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Despite benefits of a Greens/Labor coalition, Premier Palaszczuk has stated her belief that minority governments don't work (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Queensland Election, to be held on Saturday, has raised again the long-standing problem of how Labor and the Greens should deal with each other.

It seems quite likely that Labor will lose at least one seat (that of South Brisbane, currently held by Jackie Trad) to the Greens, with the neighbouring seat of McConnel also a possibility. In the plausible case where neither major party wins a majority of seats, Labor’s only chance of forming a government would depend on support from the Greens.

Before considering how this might work, it’s worth observing that the horror with which mainstream journalists refer to a hung Parliament has no basis in reality. The term is adapted from a “hung jury” — one which is unable to reach a verdict, either guilty or not guilty. However, Australia has ample experience, at both state and federal levels, of parliaments which have functioned quite effectively despite the absence of a (lower house) government majority.

At present, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has stated that she will not do a deal with the Greens, asserting that “minority governments don’t work”. This is an odd claim, coming from someone who led a minority government, generally regarded as successful, between 2015 and 2017. Interestingly, her father Henry also served as a Minister for Primary Industries in Peter Beattie’s minority government between 1998 and 2001.

It’s safe to predict that, should the numbers permit Labor to form government only with Greens support, Palaszczuk’s apparently resolute rejection of co-operation will be forgotten, or reinterpreted to make an arrangement possible. A variety of such arrangements has been tried, with varying degrees of success.

Until now, formal coalitions have been the exception rather than the rule. But they have performed well in both the A.C.T. (where the Greens made substantial gains at the last election) and new Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern is discussing a continued coalition arrangement, even though the Labour party has a majority in its own right.

On the other hand, the deal between former PM Julia Gillard and former Greens leader Bob Brown was less than successful. My reading of that episode is that both parties were harmed by the conclusion of a formal deal. Arguably, the Greens should support Labor on confidence votes and negotiate on all other legislation on the merits. Rather than go over that ground, I’m going to give my view on how they should work in the future.

First, both parties need to realise that they are part of the same centre-Left movement. For Labor, that means giving up the idea that the Greens are a temporary irritant that will go the way of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) if they are ignored long enough or abused as “inner-city elites”.

For the Greens, it means accepting that there is no prospect of a Green majority government any time seen and abandoning rhetoric suggesting that they represent an unaligned alternative to a two-party duopoly. 

In electoral terms, the starting point for both parties should be an exchange of preferences in all seats. That starting point doesn’t preclude changes in the case of particularly objectionable (or particularly good) candidates, but it does rule out the kinds of negotiations we’ve seen so many times between Labor and conservative parties, particularly in the Senate. It also rules out the fake piety of Green “open tickets”.

Such a policy would be good for the Left and centre-Left as a whole, but it would also benefit each of the parties to adopt it unilaterally. The alleged hardheads who negotiate these deals have repeatedly bungled them while creating division and attracting bad publicity.

In the current election, the critical obstacle to an agreement between Labor and the Greens is that of climate change. After Labor’s unexpected defeat in the 2019 Federal Election, the Queensland Government was pushed into a position of support for coal in general and the Adani project in particular.

On the other hand, Labor has announced a target of 50 per cent renewable generation by 2030. While the Government has taken positive steps through the expansion of public investment in renewable electricity generation, current policies are inadequate to achieve the target. 

The most promising basis for an agreement between Labor and the Greens is a massive expansion of public investment in renewable energy. Given the ultra-low rates at which governments can now borrow, the case for such an investment program is overwhelming. If investments were focused in regions currently dependent on coal mining, we could lay the basis for a socially and economically sustainable transition to renewable energy.

John Quiggin is Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland and the author of 'Zombie Economics and Economics in Two Lessons'. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnQuiggin.

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