Q&A: What is a hung parliament?

Co-author of Australian Politics for Dummies, and Associate Lecturer in politics at Deakin University, Zareh Ghazarian, explains what a hung parliament is, as the likelihood of neither Labor nor the Coalition winning a majority increases.

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What is a hung parliament?

A hung parliament is usually understood to be a situation where neither major party holds a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. As a result, they must rely on minor parties or independent MPs to support them in passing legislation.

What are the implications of having a hung parliament?

When a major party holds a majority of seats in the House of Representatives it may pass bills easily, thanks to party discipline. But a hung parliament would mean that the governing party would have to negotiate with whichever group that holds the balance of power in the lower house. This would frustrate the government. Some, on the other hand, would argue that a hung parliament would actually improve the scrutiny of legislation and the quality of government.

So, if there is a hung parliament, we could be heading back to the polls again shortly?

Not necessarily. It may be that the Government may be able to have a productive relationship with those holding the balance of power and governn for their full term. These sorts of situations have occured in various state parliaments.

Have we had many instances of hung parliaments in Australia?

Hung parliaments tend to occur in small parliaments. The recent case in Tasmania is a great example, though it is also important to remember Tasmania uses a different system of voting to elect its Lower House. In parliaments with a larger number of seats like in the Australian House of Representatives, hung parliaments are not that common. The last hung parliament in the federal parliament was in 1940 when the Coalition was returned thanks to the support of two independents. This election however was held during extraordinary circumstances with the start of the Second World War. Moreover, the parliament had just 74 seats – almost half of today’s parliament. So the bigger the parliament, the less chance of a hung parliament.

Globally, the UK is operating under a minority government at the moment and seems to be doing ok. Is the hype surrounding hung parliaments worse than the reality?

Probably, but it’s a change from what we assume to be the norm. In Australia, we’ve always had the idea that either Labor or the Coalition will win enough seats to govern in their own right. If a hung parliament was to occur, I’m sure the politicians would adapt and try to make the best of the situation. Each party would certainly try to gain the support of the independents or minor party MPs to win government.

What kind of role will third parties like the Greens play in a hung parliament?

It depends on whether the Greens win a seat in the lower house. If they do, then they may have a role to play in deciding which party will govern. However, it’s interesting to note that no minor party has won a seat in the lower house at a general election since the end of World War II. The Greens will certainly play a prominent role in the Senate.

Do you think we’re heading for a hung parliament?

With the polls so close, it looks as though a hung parliament is a possibility. However the size of the lower house and the system of voting are geared towards manufacturing a majority for either major party. Based on history I would think a hung parliament is unlikely.

Zareh Ghazarian will be live blogging for SBS on polling night. Log on to sbs.com.au/vote2010 from 8pm on August 21 to ask Zareh questions about campaigning and election results.

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