Happy birthday, Coalition!

One hundred years ago today, on 9 February 1923, a new federal government took office in Australia, following the election held the previous December. That’s an unusually long delay for us – in fact, the longest on record, although by world standards it’s nothing special – due to the nature of the election result.

The Nationalists, the centre-right party led by prime minister Billy Hughes, had been reduced to just 26 seats in the 75-member House of Representatives. Dissident Nationalists, who called themselves “Liberals”, won another five – still well short of a majority. The opposition Labor Party won 29 seats.

Holding the balance of power between them with 15 seats was the Country Party, formed just three years earlier to represent rural interests. It was willing to team up with the Nationalists, but not under Hughes’s leadership. Hughes eventually (with very bad grace) stood aside and a new Nationalist leader, S.M. Bruce, reached a coalition agreement with the Country Party: he became prime minister, with Country Party leader Earle Page as his deputy.

The Nationalist Party, after two restructures, became today’s Liberal Party, and the Country Party is now known as the National Party. But the Coalition, now usually dignified with a capital “C”, remains: except for a few brief intervals, the two parties have remained firmly connected, whether in government or (as now) in opposition.

Bill Browne from the Australia Institute has a nice appreciation of the Coalition today in the New Daily. It’s well worth a read; while his sympathies are obviously on the left, he sees the advantages the Coalition has brought to the non-Labor side, including its “sometimes performative” disagreements on policy that have “ensured regional and rural Australians feel seen.”

The reality, as we’ve noted here before, is that successive generations of Liberal leaders have deliberately indulged the Nationals because they feel closer to it ideologically than they do to the more progressive elements in their own party. As Browne puts it, “The Nationals are a convenient excuse for the Liberal Party to claim its hands are tied. The Liberals tied the knots themselves.”

In most of the world, however, this sort of thing is most unusual. Other countries have coalitions, but they are temporary, negotiated to fight a particular election or to form government after an election. Parties may have preferred partners, but they are not wedded to them: they know that alliances can shift if circumstances change. Today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s colleague in government.

Parties that become stuck in a permanent role of junior partner are usually absorbed or just dwindle to irrelevance. Consider for example Hungary’s Christian Democrats, once a genuine coalition partner to Fidesz but now a mere satellite, with no real independent existence. The Nationals at times have seemed headed in that direction, but their distinctive voice has survived – only their strongest divisions, in Queensland and the Northern Territory, have been willing to merge with the Liberals.

Why is Australia so different? The absence of proportional representation, of course, means that case-by-case coalition building is less likely to be required. But even other countries with single-member districts rarely have anything like our Coalition, and certainly not with its longevity. Perhaps our class-based political system is more to blame: having once chosen its side in the division between white-collar and blue-collar interests, the Country Party found that it was stuck there.

Browne suggests that “Labor and the Greens could learn from the political benefits that come from collaborative government.” I’ve said similar things myself a number of times. But there should also be a recognition of how singular the Coalition is: it’s not obvious that another two parties, without a hundred years’ worth of inertia behind them, would be able to make it work.


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