The ACT is now governed by a Labor-Green alliance based upon a power-sharing agreement. This agreement has 15 or more key points that lay out a basis for governance across a range of policy areas. It is the result of extensive negotiations between Labor leader Andrew Barr, the Chief Minister, and Greens leader Shane Rattenbury.
Presumably neither side got all they wanted and there had to be compromise. Already it is clear that poker machine reform fell short of what the Greens would like. But the two parties have much in common so there would have been considerable common ground.
Barr and Rattenbury know each other well, having worked alongside one another in the Assembly for eight years and in government for four years. Barr held a strong hand because Labor is much the larger party, but Rattenbury had the option of sitting on the crossbench if sufficient agreement could not be reached.
There may have been some bluff, like all good poker players, but we will never know if Barr threatened to go it alone or Rattenbury threatened to walk away. Barr couldn't afford to give too much and Rattenbury couldn't accept too little as each has party members to represent.
Rattenbury has talked up the agreement, believing that Greens members should be satisfied because they can recognise "the fingerprints of our key policy items". But he can't appear too happy in public in case it weakens Barr's position as the responsible defender of Labor policies and values. Labor members don't want Barr to give away too much.
This power-sharing agreement is between two parties with significant representation. The small size of the Assembly tends to disguise this. With 25 members the ACT Assembly is one-sixth the size of the 150-member House of Representatives. The current proportions in the Assembly if replicated in the House of Representatives would become Labor 72 (12), Liberals 66 (11) and Greens 12 (2).
The agreement between two parties sits on a continuum in terms of arrangements between one in which a single member enters the ministry, as Rattenbury did last time, and a full coalition between two parties as exists between the Liberals and the Nationals at the federal level and in some states.
With just one individual – either an Independent like Michael Moore in the past or a lone party member like Rattenbury – entering the ministry, the concentration of attention is very much on how that individual will act within cabinet vis-a-vis other cabinet members. She or he has cabinet responsibilities but also some limited independence. They have no party room to answer to, though they do always have to consider their extra-parliamentary party.
That is why the election of a second Green, Caroline Le Couteur, was so important. A party of two with one in the ministry and one backbencher is potentially very different from a party in which the sole parliamentary representative is in the ministry. Just as Labor ministers take part in discussions within the Labor caucus so Rattenbury and Le Couteur will form a party room of two and presumably could come to Green party positions as distinct from Labor-Green government decisions.
Two is an awkward number in parliamentary party terms because there can be no majority position. That makes relations between Rattenbury and Le Couteur potentially sensitive. Le Couteur is no ordinary backbencher, of course, as she will now chair the Assembly planning committee.
More broadly, relations between Labor and the Greens will be crucial too. It is a credit to both parties that they can form a power-sharing arrangement at a time when, at the federal level, relations between the two parties are tense. Successive federal Labor leaders have been far from complementary about the Greens (and vice versa) and have attempted to put a great distance between the two parties despite, or perhaps because of, the agreement struck between Julia Gillard and Bob Brown in 2010.
The closer relations in the ACT probably reflect the greater similarities between the social bases of the two parties in the territory and the domestic issues dealt with at the local level.
This raises the question of whether a Labor-Green coalition government would have been possible in the ACT and whether it would have made any difference. It would certainly have been possible, but may be just different terminology.
A coalition government, in theory at least, is a closer, more integrated relationship between two or more parties than mere power-sharing. But there are no strict rules to this effect. A coalition doesn't have to look just like the federal Liberal-National Coalition, with the junior partner filling the job of deputy prime minister. Don't tell some Nationals members that they are fully integrated into the federal Coalition. They fight to preserve the independent apparatus of separate parties, including independent party rooms, and may see their situation as power-sharing. But they have given away a lot of that independence in return for the Coalition.
Power-sharing terminology may maintain at least the figment of greater independence between the parties. This probably suits the present stage of ACT political development. Neither side may be ready for a full coalition. We don't know whether one side would entertain it; the initiative would probably have to come from the smaller party.
It is not just a matter of numbers, as the comparison with the Federal Parliament shows that the numbers are proportionally similar enough to the situation that produces a Liberal-Nationals Coalition there. But, should the Greens continue to win numerous seats in future ACT elections, then a Labor-Green coalition government will be on the agenda.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.