The story so far: Australia’s federal election of August 21 returned a hung parliament. The numbers were: Labor 72; Liberal/National Coalition (conservative): 72; independent National: 1; Green: 1; independent ex-Green: 1; independent rural conservatives: 3. Number needed to commit to form stable government: 76.
To further complicate, the balance of power in the Senate is due to be in the hands of the Greens – however, the Senate seats are only to change over next July, so the balance of power until then will remain in the hands of a minor-party conservative climate change skeptic.
For the past 17 days, the three rural conservatives – all defectors from the National party with some consequent bad blood – had been locked in negotiation with both sides. The rest of the small players had by now announced their intentions, resulting in Labor 74, Coalition 73.
Finally today, the three committed: the first, Bob Katter, to the conservative side, as expected. The other two finally pledged to Labor.
Those three independents had said they intended to vote as a block to ensure stable government. Rob Oakeshott, the youngest, most articulate and least conservative, emerged as their de facto leader (or spokesperson). Their strongest stated agenda was a) to aim for stable government; b) to get commitment to some reforms in parliamentary procedure; c) to get a better deal for regional Australia. They clearly got what they wanted on the latter two; stable government will be quite difficult. Despite everyone’s stated commitments, the independents seem to be all reserving the right – to varying degrees – to withdraw support on anything bar supply and confidence.
Katter’s move didn't suprise. Despite some of his mutterings, I don’t think he could ever have supported anyone but the conservatives*.
Oakeshott was the final person in parliament to declare his intentions – and thus the fate of government in Australia. One could say that at his press conference he drew out his announcement too long, simply for effect. (Nobody – including the parliamentary leaders – knew his intentions before he spoke his most significant word: Gillard - ie Labor.) On the other hand, he indicated in that press conference that he was aware of the gravitas of his announcement, so he went into some detail about the reasoning behind it. Not the least of this was: would he be able to sleep at night with his decision?
His announced reasons were, in order: Labor’s Broadband policy, climate change, and regional education.
Broadband: Labor’s policy was for a large-scale fibre rollout as a significant and meaningful investment in infrastructure. The Coalition’s policy involved a significant reliance on incentives to private enterprise, and for wireless to cover any gaps. Labor’s was seen to be better than the Coalition’s, except by the Coalition, those in the fibre industry – and Bob Katter, who said he didn’t think there was much between the two policies.
Winner: Australia’s infrastructure. That is, unless you think like one National PM who claimed that fibre would turn out to be a white elephant (that may possibly be the case in the long run, but as John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long run, we are all dead”).
Climate change: the previous governments – both Liberal and Labor – baulked on this issue; Liberal because they were headed by (and populated by) climate change disbelievers, and the later Labor government because their grip on the Senate was so tenuous that they held no prospect of getting any meaningful action passed (large-scale industrial adjustment is always particularly difficult anyway, because the losing industries are there already to complain loudly, and the winning industries haven’t yet become well established - or cashed up). In theory at least, this means the prospect of real action of climate change, because a) the government is supported on that basis, and b) the Senate will be in the hands of the Greens – albeit next July.
Winner: Well, everyone, ultimately. Probably.
Integrity: Rob Oakeshott stated intentions consistently related to general principles over specific electoral pork barrelling. Liberal leader – for the moment – Tony Abbott came off rather less well. In response to a request from the ex-Green independent, he promised a billion-dollar hospital in his electorate. This was rejected as unfunded and unrealistic. Then, according to “inside sources”, Abbott last night promised the remaining independents “everything they wanted”. As one of them subsequently said, though, with 68 years’ experience in public life between the three of them they’d seen every trick in the book. Which is to say, they couldn't trust anyone who baldly said they’d give them everything they wanted. In summary, principles were seen to be more important than specific promises, and Abbott lost out.
Winner: Oakeshott. Probably.
Stable government: Unless Labor gets written commitment from the Greens, the ex-Green, and the two rural independents, there’s no telling where they’ll get blockage. And as a National pointed out today, any one of several people could renege, become incapacitated, or die. Further, Steve Fielding, the Senate’s Quixotic conservative balance of power (for the moment), is so mercurial there’s no telling what he’ll do while he still possesses a modicum of power. One comment he gave indicated he may well act as complete spoiler to Labor all the way next July.
Winner: not stable government, not proactive government. Probably.
Ideology: isn’t it all about conservative vs liberal, right vs left? As the third independent, Tony Windsor, pointed out today he didn’t have much problem supporting the other side, because “philosophy with these parties died a decade ago or longer”. That is rather a good explanation of the result of the general election. Yet having said that, it’s worth noting that in the end, all independents fell to their traditional leanings, bar Tony Windsor (although Oakeshott is an ex-National in name, he has consistently espoused progressive views). I further note a comment I heard a week or so back, that all major English-heritage countries now have hung parliaments – that is, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Canada. This does rather speak to a significant dilution of political principle, on a global scale.
Winner: not principle.
Prime Minister: Did Julia Gillard sound like she was speaking with gritted teeth after the prize was hers? Did Tony Abbott display any sense of relief amongst his mixed emotion? Because this is going to be the hardest prime ministership in decades. Winner: Julia Gillard. Maybe.
*Katter once notably proclaimed that he’d walk backwards to Canberra if there were any gays in his electorate. Of course, he never fulfilled that promise. In mitigation, as a gay man in his electorate pointed out today, you’d be most unwise to come out of the closet anywhere in that diffuse rural electorate.