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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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The Aussie election

New Zealanders are all too familiar with the extended negotiations following elections, due to our Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system. In 1996, the first election under that system, Winston Peters held a key role in deciding which party would govern, since a clear winner did not emerge. The negotiations went on for weeks. Australia, on the other hand, is by no means familiar with waking up to a ‘hung parliament’ the day following an election, yet at the time of this writing, one week on from the election, there remains no clear victor.

At the time of writing, an analysis by the Sydney Morning Herald illustrated that the 150-seat Australian House of Representatives will see 72 seats held by Labor, 72 held by the Coalition, one to the Greens, and four seats to independents. The seat of Brisbane remains “too close to call”, with the latest tally of the votes marginally favouring the Liberal (Coalition) candidate, Teresa Gambaro. However, at this point, there remain 12,000 votes to count, approximately half of which are absentee and provisional ballots, which many predict will tip Brisbane towards Labor.

This is important, as it would give Labor leader, and caretaker Prime Minister Julia Gillard a significant advantage in negotiating her way back into power. Sydney Morning Herald National Editor Mark Davis explains: “The majority is 76. If Brisbane falls Labor’s way, then Julia Gillard would have 73 seats plus the new Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt (who has already indicated he will work with Labor). From this platform of 74 seats, Labor would need just two of the four independents to form government. By contrast, the Coalition would be on 72 seats and could only form government if it secured the support of all four independents.”

Despite this, Labor’s prospects are somewhat offset by the fact that polls show the majority of the three rural independent’s constituents would prefer their elected representatives supported Tony Abbott’s Coalition. A Galaxy poll revealed that only 36 per cent of the 600 voters in these electorates felt as though the trio should back Labor.

On Wednesday 25 August the three independents met with both Gillard and Abbott, outlining seven demands to help them in making their decisions in who to support to form a minority government. One of the three, Rob Oakeshott outlined that the seven demands would help them to ensure a stable government, and added, “if we can’t get that, let’s go back to the ballot box”:

  • Economic advice from the Treasury and Finance secretaries, most importantly analysing the effect that election promises from both sides would have on the nation’s budget.
  • Briefing from the secretaries of key departments in Government.
  • Briefing from both the caretaker and shadow ministers on their plans for these departments over the next three years.
  • An outline of each side’s plans to make improvements to parliamentary procedures and private members business.
  • A commitment to explore “consensus options”. This would mean that more than the simple majority of 76 would be required to govern.
  • A commitment from whoever the three decide to form a government with, that a full three-year term would be completed.
  • A timetable for reforms on political donations, electoral advertising and donations.

There are two fundamental concessions in these seven demands. The first is related to the three-year term. In Australia, terms are not fixed, and the prime minister’s ability to decide the timing of an election is a key power. Michelle Grattan, political editor for The Age, explains that this benefits the independents in two ways. First, “it maximises their period of influence”, and second “it ensures they are not quickly held to account by their own constituents”. This is important because “by the end of three years, they would hope to be able to point to bags of benefits for their own electorates as well as to more highfalutin’ achievements”.

Both Gillard and Abbott have agreed to this first concession, promising an election will not be held before August 2013. The second key concession hasn’t been quite so easily accepted. The analysis of the costing of each sides elections promises has seen Gillard agree, however Abbott has flatly refused to concede this claiming that this amounts the “trashing of the Westminster system”.

“Our system depends on public servants being able to give free, frank and fearless advice to government,” Abbott says, “and that means the advice has got to remain confidential.” Instead, Abbott has offered the three independents an audit of the Coalition’s costing prepared by a leading firm during the election campaign.

Abbott’s failure to comply with this request has somewhat alienated him from two of three independents. Bob Katter has warned that this “makes it much more difficult for us to give [Abbott] the gong to become prime minister”. Tony Windsor has also said that “it’s not a good start at all, because when we go into this issue of stability… what we are trying to establish here is a degree of trust”.

All of this points to negotiations that are likely to be lengthy, as independents weigh up these concessions against the wishes of their constituents. Moreover, discussions will be drawn out further by the fact that these first seven demands don’t include any regional concessions, which the rural independents are sure to push for. Australia could be waiting indefinitely for a government to be formed.

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