After two tension-filled weeks of negotiation and bargaining, Labor’s Julia Gillard was finally able to inform Governor General Quentin Bryce that she, Gillard, had the confidence of the new House of Representatives and could carry on as Prime Minister.
Ms Gillard’s historic achievement of becoming the first woman to be elected as Prime Minister was an escape act of which Houdini would have been proud. Gillard had, after all, presided over a weak election campaign that saw a 2.7 percent two-party swing against her government and Labor losing 14 seats to the Coalition, 1 seat to the Greens and 1 seat to an independent. Had it not been for a pathetic effort by the Liberals in Victoria, Julia Gillard would have lost the election.
As it has turned out, Gillard caries on as Prime Minister as a result of the courageous decision by independent MPs Rob Oakshott and Tony Windsor to support a minority Labor government on the floor of the Lower House.
The courage of the approach of the two independents manifests itself in the way their decision probably defies the wishes of their constituents. Both independents do represent rural seats that, in the past, were held by the National Party. They run the real risk of losing their seats at the next election. Having said this, it was also the case that the independents didn’t really have a great deal of choice if their objective was to install a government that would go to the next election later rather than sooner.
In these negotiations Gillard had one major advantage over Liberal leader Tony Abbott: on July 1 next year, the new Senate will be installed and a total of nine Greens will be in the Upper House. Together, Labor and the Greens will have a total of 41 of the 76 Senate seats.
Had he become Prime Minister, Abbott would have faced a hostile Senate right from the start. The consequence could well have been legislative gridlock with the government being unable to get its bills through the parliament.
In such a situation, Abbott would have quickly established the basis upon which a double dissolution election could have been called. Australia would have probably been back at the polls within a year.
With Gillard as Prime Minister, the prospects for dealing with the Senate are much brighter, although the price the government might have to pay could well be action on potentially difficult policy matters like tax reform and climate change.
This in itself is worth noting, for some argue that inert and timid administration is inevitable with minority government. It is known that both Windsor and Oakshott also believe that action should be taken on climate change. Thus the government can be expected to try to do something more than just have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ to deal with this matter.
Given that Gillard, rather than Abbott, has the greater scope to get things through the Senate, and given the key players who have brought Australia its first minority national government since 1940, it would be wise to avoid going to an early election lest they lose the powerful position they find themselves in at the moment.
There then should be a fair expectation that this government could last for a couple of years at least. It should also be remembered that the two rural independents who have bestowed government upon Julia Gillard could change their minds at any time, and direct their support instead to Tony Abbott.
In this circumstance, Abbott would then become Prime Minister with no need for an election.
The months ahead are going to be very interesting, not the least because there is a strong hint of serious policy debates being undertaken especially about climate change and tax reform. Despite the closeness of the numbers in the lower house, this could be a period of quite dramatic policy development.
And for Julia Gillard, an opportunity arises for her to resurrect her political reputation that has been so badly damaged thus far by the very risky act of deposing Kevin Rudd and a very poor election campaign in which she was such a central player.