For the first time in British history, the Conservatives will be forced to rely on the hardline, illiberal Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to push through legislation. Patrick Leslie and Marija Taflaga look at what we can glean from Australia’s experience of right-wing coalitions.
Unlike in the UK, Australia’s Conservative Party equivalent — the Liberal Party — has rarely been able to govern alone. The Liberals have relied on the National Party, a socially conservative, right-wing party focused on agriculture, mining and rural communities. Known as the Coalition, these two parties have governed together since the 1920s.
The DUP’s reputation as a hard-line, socially conservative, unionist party sparked outrage and protest at the Conservatives’ desire to strike a deal — the DUP remain staunch opponents of decriminalising abortion and marriage equality. In the Australian case, the Nationals have consistently sought to slow the pace of social change. In 2015, socially conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott used the National party’s opposition to gay marriage as a tactic to block a push for a free vote on the issue. The tactic worked: gay marriage remains illegal in Australia.
But should we be concerned?
Currently, there are few religiously controversial policy issues on the national legislative agenda. While Arlene Foster’s vow to retain the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland is of concern to mainland voters, the issue remains confined to Stormont for now. Likewise in Australia, abortion remains a state-based policy domain with minimal impact at the federal level. The Nationals remain more focused on securing resources for their regional constituents than pursing their social policy objectives.
A review of the DUP’s 2017 Westminster manifesto reveals a distinct lack of references to social policy, let alone morally contentious issues. Considering the amount of anxiety generated by the DUP’s social conservatism, we see little evidence of the party’s intent to impose Northern Irish social policies onto the mainland.
Brexit and pork-barrel politics
It is far more likely that the DUP will have significant impact on government spending both within Northern Ireland and nationally. Past experience has suggested that the DUP will have a “shopping list” of demands for Northern Ireland (Cowley and Kavanagh 2015, 145), that amount to more roads and infrastructure upgrades. More recently the cash-for-ash scandal has blown a £500m hole in the Northern Irish budget. Not to mention the DUP’s stance on plans to cut social care policies such as the ‘triple lock’ on pension increases and the winter fuel allowance.
Looking to Australia, the Nationals have a long history of influencing economic policy. The party has successfully secured funding directly targeted towards regional and rural Australia, such as a AUS$3 bn rural telecommunications fund, and the relocation of entire government agencies to National Party leader Barnaby Joyce’s own district.
Until their position in parliament was diminished at the 2007 federal election, the Nationals continuously held the trade ministry, which they used to shape Australia’s trade policy to suit its agricultural base. In its current term of office, the Nationals have successfully blocked foreign takeover bids of agricultural companies, introduced stricter foreign investment rules and favourable treatment for Australian agricultural products in free trade deals despite opposition within the Liberal party.
While it’s not yet clear what the DUP’s nuanced position on Brexit will be, their position is less extreme than the Conservative ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ position. The DUP favour a frictionless border with the Republic, in addition to a comprehensive customs and free trade agreement with the EU. Northern Ireland stands to lose the most of all of the UK’s constituent regions as a result of a hard Brexit. The DUP has, therefore, both the votes and every incentive to pull the Conservatives towards its Brexit position.
Evidence from Australia suggests that the DUP could also influence the leadership of the Conservative Party. Throughout their history, the National Party have acted as king-makers. In 1922, they forced Prime Minister Billy Hughes to stand down to make way for the Nationals’ preferred candidate. After the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967, National Party leader, John McEwan black-balled the leadership ambitions of Billy McMahon. In 2009, the Nationals were instrumental in the downfall of Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. And in 2015, the Nationals imposed a written agreement on Turnbull, now a prime ministerial challenger, severely constraining his capacity to set his own policy agenda as PM. In the UK context, should Theresa May’s premiership falter, the DUP could use its balance-of-power position to back the most accommodating leadership candidate.
The legacy of the Troubles
While there are many insights that can be drawn from the Australian experience, the DUP’s history as a key player during the Troubles presents specific challenges for any parliamentary working arrangement – namely, how to safeguard the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the ongoing Northern Irish peace process.
The collapse of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland and the return of direct rule as a result of the cash-for-ash scandal complicates any deal the Conservatives can secure. The immediate task facing Northern Irish politics is to restore self-government. The prospect of a deal with just one of the four major parties in Northern Ireland undermines Westminster’s capacity to act as an impartial mediator.
May faces several problems. First, she must come to an arrangement with a hard-line partner in experienced at the national level. Second, any deal she makes must accommodate the expectations of several extra-parliamentary actors, which are often in conflict with the DUP. Third, any agreement with the DUP has derailed the government’s preparations for the imminent commencement of Brexit. Last, as the working partnership of the Australian coalition demonstrates it’s not enough for the Conservatives and DUP to settle their policy differences, they must also institutionalise effective inter-party relationships.
In so far as the Conservative-DUP relationship is successful, we believe it is more likely to be characterised by attempts to secure increased funding for Northern Ireland, rather than by social policy campaigns. The parties’ capacity to work together remains an open question, and new problems pile up by the day.
This post was originally published on Democratic Audit.
Marija Taflaga is a Lecturer at the Australian National University.