The gathering storm down under .. how much longer can Australia’s Labor government last?

Jan 26th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

Australian prime minister Julia Gillard is escorted by police and bodyguards out of a award ceremony after aboriginal tent embassy protesters tried to get into the building in Canberra,on Australia Day, Thursday, January 26, 2012. Lukas Coch / EPA.

Internal website statistics showing a sudden burst of fresh interest in a blog we did on the last Australian federal election (“You can’t blame Bloc Québécois for no majority government in Land of Oz,”  Aug 23rd, 2010) has clued us in to fresh political hi-jinks in the exotic deep southern geography of  billabongs, coolabah trees, kangaroos, koala bears, etc, etc.

(It is part of Australia’s strangeness, for we inhabitants of the fellow former dominion of the British empire on which the sun never set, up here in the attic of North America, that, as we see it, today, January 26, 2010, is Australia Day. But in Australia itself  Australia Day was yesterday. Today is January 27, 2012. Happy Australia Day 2012, in any case, even if you too feel “Aussie. I love it, but leave me out of the flag-waving.”)

So … to quote from our August 2010 piece on the last Australian federal election: “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.”

In the end Julia Gillard’s Australian Labor Party and its main opponents, Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition each won only 72 seats. When the dust settled, six “crossbenchers” (in the exotic Ozzie political lexicon) held “the balance of power: Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor declared their support for Labor on confidence and supply; independent MP Bob Katter and National Party of Western Australia MP Tony Crook declared their support for the Coalition on confidence and supply. The resulting 76–74 margin entitled Labor to form a minority government.”

Andrew Wilkie, right, and senator Nick Xenophon on their way to a pokies reform rally in Sydney. Dan Himbrechts, The Australian.

The House tilted slightly more in Julia Gillard’s direction late this past year: “The Labor government increased their parliamentary majority on 24 November 2011 from 75–74 to 76–73 when the Coalition’s Peter Slipper became Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, replacing Labor’s Harry Jenkins.”

What has now happened in January 2012 to complicate these numbers further is that Julia Gillard has suddenly backed out of an earlier written agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie, regarding government policy on reform of the Australian poker machine industry (aka “the pokies”: CLICK HERE for an instructive BBC video on just what this means!). Mr. Wilkie regarded this written agreement as the price of his support of Ms. Gillard’s Labor minority government, and withdrew his support when she cancelled the deal.

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Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott is escorted by police and bodyguards out of a award ceremony which aboriginal tent embassy protesters tried to disrupt on Australia Day 2012. It was earlier remarks from him that the protesters were protesting! Lukas Coch / EPA.

Ms Gillard claims to have cancelled the agreement with Mr. Wilkie because it has become clear that it won’t be supported by other “crossbench” members, and thus can’t be passed in the House. But some say it is members of her own Labor party who don’t like the thing — any more than Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition in opposition.

It also seems clear enough that it was the slight increase in Ms. Gillard’s parliamentary majority this past November, when the Coalition’s Peter Slipper became Speaker, that made it practical for her to turn her back on Mr. Wilkie.

We’re no experts in the exotic politics of the Land of Oz. But it does appear that all this has finally crystallized a growing uneasiness about Julia Gillard as Labor government leader. Her regime has been polling below its Liberal/National Coalition rivals since April 2011. And her abrogation of her “pokie reform” agreement with Andrew Wilkie has been spawning such recent headlines as: “PM dumps Andrew Wilkie’s pokies timeline” ; “Aussie gov’t teeters on precipice after revising pokies pre-commitment plan” ; “Another Gillard ‘Breach of Trust!’” ; “PM’s big gamble, cutting Andrew Wilkie loose … ” ; “Gillard duds Wilkie, and what’s left of her own credibility” ; “Why Rudd’s return is Labor’s only chance of survival” ; “Julia Gillard flouted rules on government grants” ; “Gillard accused on pokie reforms” ; “Wilkie the winner out of pokies debate coverage” ; and “Why we can’t trust Gillard any more.”

We don’t have any way of judging just how serious all this is either. (And it is just about “poker machines” in one sense.) But it does seem interesting that “Prime Minister Julia Gillard calls in entire caucus for crisis summit … The entire Labor caucus has been ordered to an unprecedented weekend brainstorming session before parliament resumes, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard moves to keep her party on side … The planning day will be held in the Labor caucus room at parliament at 2 pm on Sunday, February 5, before parliament resumes on the Tuesday … It will be followed by a barbecue with the PM at The Lodge at 5.30 pm … Some MPs claimed it was an attempt to rally the caucus behind her, with fears lingering that support has been leaking away to Foreign Minister [and former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd over the summer break.”

Oh and btw, that’s another thing that makes Australia so different from Canada — or the United States for that matter, or even the United Kingdom, or France: the seasons in the Land of Oz are exactly backwards from ours up here in the Northern Hemisphere. We will nonetheless be paying some further attention to what happens in the federal capital at Canberra, after the summer break!

Australian prime minister Julia Gillard loses her shoe as she is is escorted by police and bodyguards out of award ceremony on Australia Day 2012. Lukas Coch / EPA.

(And finally, this just in : “PM Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott trapped in Aboriginal protest on Australia Day … For many Aboriginal people Australia Day is considered Invasion Day.” This, presumably, has nothing to do with the pokies. But it is vaguely reminiscent of contemporaneous events up here in the attic of North America — where the “regime of unthinking and unscrupulous populist conservatism” feared by some down under if Julia Gillard does somehow falter soon, has already been in office for almost half a dozen years, inspired by that former Ozzie master of unscrupulous populist conservatism, and great friend of George W. Bush, PM John Howard!)

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