One of the problems with writing a weekly column in the midst of a shifting political environment is that conditions that applied on the day the author put pen to paper may change by the time readers read those words. As I write this, the four independent members of the House of Representatives – Bob Katter (Queensland), Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott (NSW) and Andrew Wilkie (Tasmania) – continue to play chicken with the two major parties over whether or not they will support them as a minority government.

It is Julia Gillard rather than Tony Abbott who has the greater potential to deliver a stable and long-term minority government.

There is no great constitutional urgency to resolve this matter, of course. The law states that the writs that provide the legal basis for the 2010 election don’t have to be returned until late October, and the constitution says the House of Representatives must be called within 30 days of their return, so Julia Gillard could string out being a caretaker prime minister until late November if she wanted. It’s unlikely that this would happen, however, and that a decision on whom the independents will support is imminent. It may already have happened.

Amidst all this uncertainty, I thought that, this week, I’d speculate a little about the prospects for both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott should they find themselves to be in government in the near future. In a nutshell, my view is that it is Julia Gillard rather than Tony Abbott who has the greater potential to deliver a stable and long-term minority government. This is not based on any sense of Gillard being somehow superior to Abbott (after all, it was Mr Abbott with his gain of 16 seats who was the big winner in the recent election). Rather, my argument rests on which of the major parties is in a better position to work with the parliament – that is, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In all the excitement about the close nature of the result in the lower house, little attention has been paid to what has happened in the Senate. In brief, control of the upper house will shift on July 1, 2011 (the date when those elected to the Senate last week will take their seats) from the right-wing parties (Liberal, National, Family First, Nick Xenophon) to the left wing parties (Labor and the Greens).

The Greens have had a brilliant election, but, once again, the historic nature of the party’s success in the lower house seat of Melbourne has obscured the magnitude of its achievement in the Senate. The Greens have won 6 new positions which, in addition to the 3 seats they held before, gives the party 9 senators in total. With the stronger Labor representation arising from its ability to win 3 seats in Tasmania, and with the Liberals appearing to be about to lose a seat to the DLP in Victoria, the Senate will be under the control of the Labor party and the Greens.

If Julia Gillard somehow muddles her way to forming a minority government, there is every reason to expect that she could hang on the prime ministership for the full three years if she wanted to. This will be due to the fact that she will be in a position to deal constructively with the Senate. The interesting thing to observe will be to see what legislation will have to be passed in order to appease the Greens, and what impact this might have at a subsequent election.

If Mr Abbott were to become Prime Minister, however, his minority government will struggle to get anything past the Senate. The Greens and Labor could already frustrate Abbott immediately, while the transition to the new Senate in July next year will just make Abbott’s position even more difficult. Abbott will be the first prime minister since Gough Whitlam to face an ideologically hostile Senate.

The prospect is, of course, that a fresh election will come sooner rather than later if Abbott was to be Prime Minister. The scope to call a double dissolution election would also arise if the Senate were to start rejecting bills twice – an outcome that Abbott could easily engineer if he wanted to. So, amidst all this uncertainty, the question of when we go to the next election can be predicted. If Gillard is Prime Minister, the next election will be later rather than sooner. If Abbott were to become prime minister, the next election could be very soon indeed.

Dr Nick Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.