Fascinating battle looms

by Chris Griffith
Published 18 February 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


Queensland's revamped Labor Opposition will employ some fascinating tactics in its bid to embarrass, frustrate, and even destabilise the new minority Borbidge government on the floor of parliament this week.

Tuesday's historic meeting of parliament will also see Labor attack the credibility of Gladstone independent MP Liz Cunningham in its bid to foster a split between her and the coalition.

But Griffith University constitutional expert Professor Charles Sampford and University of Southern Queensland political commentator Rae Wear yesterday said any blatantly opportunistic tactics could backfire against Labor which remained one seat away from the treasury benches.

With both sides holding 44 seats, and Mrs Cunningham the balance of power, the ALP has many options which, in the long term, could lead to the defeat of the coalition- Cunningham alliance in parliament.

First Labor, like the coalition before it, could deny the new government a "pairing" agreement. Usually if one coalition member was absent from parliament, one Labor member would not vote so that the parliamentary numbers would remain balanced.

Without a pairing agreement, the coalition would face loosing a no-confidence motion on the floor of parliament if any government member was sick, overseas, late for parliament, or simply out of the building when a division was called.

Prof Sampford said if the coalition even temporarily lost the confidence of the House in the upcoming parliamentary sessions, convention dictated that Mr Borbidge would resign or advise Governor Leneen Forde to agree to an election. But Mrs Forde could reject this advice and tell Mr Borbidge to reconvene parliament and move a confidence motion where the coalition's loss of a number was only temporary.

He said it would be risky for Labor to move a no confidence motion it expected to win unless the polls showed Labor could also win an election -- otherwise Mr Borbidge might be only too happy to call an election.

He said if a coalition member was absent from parliament, Labor could use its temporary parliamentary majority to throw out government legislation, but the coalition could reverse this once its numbers were restored. However the episode would still embarrass the coalition.

Labor may also entice Mrs Cunningham to break ranks with the coalition by introducing some very tempting private members' bills that directly targeted the needs of Gladstone voters.

Labor sponsored Bills that vastly increased police numbers, or fast-tracked the building of a clinic or the disputed Tannum Sands schools south of Gladstone may be too tempting for Mrs Cunningham not to vote for.

And Labor sponsored private members' Bills passed with Mrs Cunningham's support would again embarrass the coalition and disrupt government, as the public service would have to implement opposition legislation. This could undermine the government's budget and its approach to handling the same problems.

Ms Wear said Mrs Cunningham may decide not to support Labor-initiated private members' Bills that blew the coalition's budget, however tempting they were.

She said Labor's best strategy was for its front bench to use its knowledge of government processes to pressure the coalition ministry.

"To begin with, the Labor frontbench will still have the advantage of familiarity with the bureaucracy and with the whole range of policy areas," she said.

"I think they will be able to put an enormous amount of pressure on new ministers and possibly make them seem very gauche and inept."

Prof Sampford said a fascinating situation would arise if a coalition MP became unavailable to attend parliament for several months, for example because of an extended illness.

He said Mr Borbidge might convince Mrs Forde to shut down parliament to avoid the government being defeated on the floor.

In 1983 then premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen had succeeded in convincing governor Sir Walter Campbell to close parliament for months to avoid defeat after the National- Liberal party coalition dissolved, he said.