15 May 2010

Coalition works

Now Britain has a coalition government for the first time since 1945 and many of the political pundits are saying that it can never last – the differences of policy and world views are too great, and there is mutual loathing both between the people who now have to work together and between the broader party memberships.

The fact is that coalitions can work very well in spite of those differences, as decades of successful coalition government in Australia bear out. Menzies led a coalition government for 23 years, Fraser for seven, and Howard for twelve.  There was no love lost between the right wing of the Liberal Party and the Country or National Party with which they served in Government, and Sir John McEwen, the towering figure who led the Country Party from 1958-71, famously refused to serve under William McMahon and thereby effectively vetoed the latter’s elevation to the Liberal Party Leadership and hence to the Prime Ministership when Harold Holt was drowned.

I have seen at first hand how coalition works, having for most of the Fraser years been Deputy Secretary in the Department of Trade and Resources led by Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, Leader of what was then called the National Country Party, and then in the early Howard years having been Secretary to the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, led by Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, Leader of what was by then called the National Party.  It works, in spite of the inevitable skulduggery that swirls away in the background as people on the margins of the party make mischief for their own purposes.

Good fences make good neighbours, they say, and coalition works well when there are clearly defined understandings negotiated ahead of time. These understandings create no-go areas which are part of the deal, and enable the leaders of both of the parties to curb the excesses of the wilder or more asinine members of their own parties – “Sorry, mate, the other mob would never agree to that”.  The post-war Federal Coalitions were never a reflection of the world view of either National Party Senators from Queensland, or of the suburban solicitors that infest the right wing of the Liberal Party and live in a parallel universe of free markets and evil trade unions.

This model of coalition sheltered us from Presidential rule – important issues had to be negotiated around the Cabinet table, which meant that they had to be debated. Everyone in Cabinet had to know what was going on, and had to have time to take advice from their Department. It was slower, a bit more cumbersome, but it was effective. The Prime Minister had to be what he had traditionally been – very influential, but at the end of the day, only the first among equals (the term “Prime” Minister was a mildly pejorative one as the British Parliamentary system was evolving into its present democratic form). It is no coincidence that the emergence of President John Howard coincided with weak leadership in the National Party, with its steadfast refusal to take a stand on anything, based on acceptance of the notion that as the junior partner in the Coalition it could not expect to have its way against the wishes of its more numerous partner, and its failure even to recognise that John Howard was doing everything in his power to see the National Party off the political stage.

Now the British have the opportunity to restore Cabinet Government, after the disastrous years of Presidential rule by Tony Blair, years in which the country was run by the Prime Minister and his spin doctor Alistair Campbell, years in which Cabinet met infrequently, and then only for a quick update on what Tony had already decided.  This Presidential system was one in which Tony Blair could take the country to war on a lie (Iraq), and Vice-President Gordon Brown could go off on a frolic of his own and try to make Britain the centre of the financial universe. What a legacy of New Labour those two, and that system, have left.

Now Cameron and Clegg have a chance to change all of that, and restore the primacy of Cabinet.  The fact that they spent days nutting out the terms of their coalition agreement suggests that they might have the political maturity to bring it off. It is to be hoped so.

We should be so lucky.

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