Greg Barns on final Australian election result .. Julia Gillard has tougher job than Stephen Harper

Sep 7th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief

Independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor announce their support for Julia Gillard. Photo: Andrew Meares.

Unlike their Canadian counterparts, Australian voters are not enamoured of minority governments at the federal level.  Until 17 days ago that is.  That’s when the Labor Party Prime Minister and the Liberal Party Opposition Leader both claimed they should form the next government because both ended up with 73 seats in the 150-seat national parliament.  This left the decision to a handful of Independent MPs.

One, a Green, has backed the ALP (Australian Labor Party, led by Julia Gillard), along with a progressive Independent from Tasmania .  Then the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition (led by Tony Abbott) picked up two conservative Independents, and today Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, two Independent MPs from rural New South Wales have announced they are backing Ms. Gillard, which will give her a one-seat majority in the lower house.

Ms Gillard’s government will be the first minority government in Australian federal politics since 1940. But whether she can manage such a thing as adroitly as Stephen Harper and his Conservatives appear to have done in Canada is open to question.  There are two major differences between the scene in Ottawa and that which confronts Australians today in Canberra .

The forces that Mr. Harper needs to get on side to pass laws, and in particular his budget each year, are political parties.  He has three to choose from in this regard.  Ms Gillard on the other hand must rely on one Green and three fiercely Independent MPs to achieve the same outcome.  If one of them peels off she is in trouble, and the temptation is there now for rebel members of the Labor Party to threaten to cross the floor and bring down her government.

Then there is the reluctance to go to the polls factor which has assisted Mr. Harper.  In the case of Australia the conservatives appear eager to occupy the Treasury benches as quickly as possible.  If an election was in the offing in six months time they would be likely to force the issue given they only need to win less than a handful of seats to form a government.

However there is potentially some upside to the Australian situation which Canada has not experienced during the Harper years.  The negotiations over the past 17 days have seen major steps taken by both major political parties to redress the imbalance between parliament and the executive.  An independent speaker and deputy speaker, a less politicized question time and more resources for MPs and committees are reforms that will now be rolled out immediately.

Barrister Greg Barns in The Trial — the inside story of Australia’s biggest terrorism trial.

And it is highly unlikely that Ms. Gillard would prorogue parliament in the way Mr. Harper has done in Canada. Such an act would certainly mean that the Independent MPs would withdraw their fragile support for her fragile new government.

Australian lawyer and policy consultant Greg Barns was a political adviser to the Howard government in Canberra from 1996 to 1999. He was the political campaign director of the Australian Republican Movement’s 1999 referendum campaign and he succeeded Malcolm Turnbull as ARM chair in 2000. He is a regular commentator in Canada on Australian politics, and his Canadian appearances include CBC Radio and the Toronto Globe and Mail. He also comments on Australian politics in Australia and other parts of the global village, in such publications as Crikey and the South China Morning Post. He plays a leading role as well in the recent Australian documentary, The Trial — which tells the “inside story of Australia’s biggest terrorism trial.”

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