You can’t blame Bloc Québécois for no majority government in Land of Oz

Aug 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief

Current flag of Australia ... somewhat reminiscent of the old Canadian red ensign, but still with considerable support, even among Australian republicans.

[UPDATED JANUARY 26, 2012: scroll to bottom of page]. Canadian political junkies following the still uncertain results of this past Saturday’s Australian federal election are entitled to feelings of amazement at the snowballing complexities of what is going down down under at the moment.

In some ways Australia, as a fellow former self-governing dominion of the now fallen British empire, has a parliamentary democratic political system much more like Canada’s than that of the neighbouring USA. But its local variation on the common “Westminster” theme also displays certain exotic features, which may or may not have something to do with an exotic deep southern geography of  billabongs, coolabah trees, kangaroos, koala bears, etc, etc, etc.

So … to start with, to form the barest of majority governments you need at least 76 seats in what the Ozzies call their House of Representatives (following the American rather than the British nomenclature). The verdict of the voters this past Saturday was so close that the final word on all the seats is still not in — and may not be for a while yet.

As of the afternoon of Tuesday, August 24 (and here is yet another wrinkle: today is already tomorrow down under!): “On the latest counting for the House of Representatives, Labor and the Coalition appeared to have secured 72 seats each, with three independents, one Green and two seats in doubt.”

On some accounts there may actually be more than two seats still in doubt. But assume there are only two, and that they ultimately divide evenly between Labor and the Coalition (where “the Coalition” is a longstanding arrangement between the right-wing Liberal and National parties). Then each of two main party groupings must negotiate for support from the three independents and one Green, to see who can reach the magic number of 76 seats and form some stable minority (or “coalition”) government — Labor’s Julia Gillard or the “Coalition’s” Tony Abbott.

“Aboriginal/Australian flag” — with “symbol of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people” replacing union jack in top left corner.

As matters stand: the “Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, looks likely to support Labor, leaving the parties to woo the three remaining [‘rural’] independents.” As it happens all three independents are “ex-Nationals.” So you might think that they will support the Liberal-National Coalition led by Tony Abbott. But this is apparently far from a sure thing. They are, it seems, “ex-Nationals” for a reason. And: “The Nationals leader, Warren Truss, has been shut out of the negotiations because of the hostility between the Nationals and the rural independents.”


* * * *

The outcome of all the negotiations may not be known until next week — or even beyond? Meanwhile, two further thickenings of the plot have some particular intrigue for Canadians.

Torah Bright carries the Australian flag at the opening ceronmines of the Winter 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, BC. Photo: David J. Phillip/Associated Press.

In the first place, unlike Canada Australia has a more or less functional elected Senate, that represents the states in the federation and actually plays a serious role in the political process. (In this respect, again, it has followed American rather than British examples — perhaps partly because the Australian federation came together a generation later than modern Canada?).

The functional Senate in the Land of Oz has its own potential implications for sorting out the challenging verdict of the sovereign people on August 21, 2010. According to Labor leader Julia Gillard, her party is “better-placed than the Coalition to form a stable government after Saturday’s election … She believes Labor is more likely to win Greens support for its policies in the Senate … Her comments were designed to suggest that the Greens, who will assume a stranglehold over the balance of power in the Senate from July 1, are likely to block many of a Coalition government’s policies and spending cuts … The Greens declined to comment last night.”

“All Australian Flag” — a proposed “national symbol that can represent all Australians for the generations to come.”

A second wrinkle here concerns the office of Governor General that both Australia and Canada share — and that (as we in Canada are coming to appreciate ourselves) can assume some significant power when no party (or “Coalition” or “coalition”) wins a clear majority of seats in a parliamentary election.

As Australian constitutional law expert George Williams has explained: “If everything runs as it should [with the various party negotiations, over the next number of days], no conflict issue can even arise because it will be Parliament that will make a decision and that will be the end of the matter … But, if things do go awry and extraordinary things happen,” then Governor General Quentin Bryce could find herself in a position where she has to decide whether to ask Labor leader Julia Gillard or Coalition leader Tony Abbott to try to form a government.

If this does happen Ms. Bryce herself has already started to wonder about the suitability of her particular background.  She has even “sought legal advice on whether her family link to Labor powerbroker Bill Shorten creates a conflict of interest with her role in appointing the next Australian government.” Ms. Bryce was appointed by former Labor leader Kevin Rudd (before he was succeeded by Julia Gillard, before the 2010 election, in an effort to get around the political troubles Mr. Rudd had run into with, among other things, his new mining tax). In fact Mr. Shorten, who is “one of the architects of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s demise and a potential Labor leadership candidate” in his own right, should Ms. Gillard somehow stumble, is married to Governor General Bryce’s daughter, Chloe — and is the father of the governor general’s granddaughter, Clementine.

A proposed “New Flag for the Republic of Australia.”

Hopefully the elected politicians will be able to resolve the current “hung parliament” by themselves, without resorting to the reserve powers of Governor General Bryce. The situation, however, does raise some of the problems about the current method of selecting governor generals in both Australia and Canada — as recently discussed, eg, in “PM Harper’s new governor general shows office continues to evolve?” on our own website here.

More than a few additional intriguing wrinkles might be discussed. But this report “In Brief” is already too long. Two very final observations must suffice for the time being.

First, our very inexpert and quite wild guess right now is that Julia Gillard’s Labor party will finally form a minority government with enough Green and rural independent support to last until at least some point in 2011. This, we freely confess, could prove quite wrong. It is just a vague and not very well informed instinct, from very far away. The only not-very-solid evidence so far is a Sydney Morning Herald online (and quite unscientific) poll, answered by more than 167,000 readers at the time of writing. It asks the question: “Which side deserves the support of the independent and Green MPs who will decide the balance of power?” And the results as of August 23, 9:45 PM ET in Canada are: Labor  53%, Coalition 47%.

Muslim girls wearing hijabs with the Australian flag on them walk in Melbourne (AAP).

Finally, whatever else may or may not prove true in the very end, no one in Canada will be able to blame the current failure of the Australian people to elect a majority government on the Bloc Québécois. As matters stand, in fact, the most recent elections in all of Australia, Canada, and the old mother country of the United Kingdom itself have failed to produce majority governments. There may be some food for thought here on our current minority government syndrome in northern North America — that has nothing at all to do with the francophone majority in Quebec?

UPDATE JANUARY 26, 2012: See our counterweights editors’ report on “The gathering storm down under .. how much longer can Australia’s Labor government last?

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