Australia’s 43rd Parliament opens for business on September 28 after a tumultuous election campaign, which has produced the nation’s first minority federal government in 70 years. But with the Opposition playing hardball and commentators forecasting a quick return to the polls, the prospects of an extended stay in office for the country’s first elected female prime minister are cloudy.
The Diplomat spoke to experts from Australia and internationally to examine the outlook for the new government and what the region might expect from Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her cabinet, including the new foreign minister, Kevin Rudd.
Gillard finally moved into the official prime ministerial residence in Canberra, The Lodge, on September 26. The fact that she moved in with her boyfriend Tim Mathieson as a de facto, unmarried couple is yet another break from tradition.
It was an election that produced a number of firsts for Australia’s relatively young parliamentary democracy, including placements of the first indigenous and Muslim lawmakers and the youngest ever representative, a 20-year-old.
The Gillard-headed Labor Party’s final tally of 72 seats in the lower house and the Liberal/National Coalition’s 73 was below the 76 needed for either to assume majority rule. It took 17 days following the knife-edge August 21 poll for a result, with Gillard finally achieving the magic number after winning the support of key rural independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, along with Greens MP Adam Bandt and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie.
Labor was declared the winner of the key two-party preferred vote, although by the barest of margins. With 93.2 percent of the primary vote counted, Australian Electoral Commission data showed the centre-left party leading the conservative Coalition by 50.12 to 49.88 percent.
Yet the Gillard government’s razor-thin parliamentary majority has already been halved to a single seat after the recent decision of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to renege on a parliamentary reform deal allowing the ‘pairing’ of votes for the Speaker.
The deal would have seen the Speaker—currently Labor MP Harry Jenkins—paired with an MP from the opposing side, who would abstain from voting. While Oakeshott was initially seen as a candidate, he dropped his bid for the role following opposition from the Coalition. Labor’s subsequent attempt to promote Liberal MP Alex Somlyay as Deputy Speaker on the proviso that he not block supply or support no-confidence motions against the government also failed.
Speaking on Sunday to Network Ten’s Meet the Press, Gillard accused the Opposition Leader of acting as a political wrecker.
‘He's acting like a bull in a china shop, thinking his job is to smash everything he sees up,’ she said.
‘I think it’s deeply disappointing that Mr Abbott would say yes to parliamentary reform, sign the agreement, see his representatives engage in a group hug, spruik parliamentary reform himself and then trash it when it doesn't suit him.’
Announcing his decision, Abbott accused the Labor leader of reneging on her own promise not to back a carbon tax, and asserted that the Speaker pairing deal was illegal.
‘We believe that it is constitutionally unsound…If the government is unable or unwilling to provide a Speaker for the Parliament, well then the prime minister should not have accepted the Governor-General’s commission.’
Defending her leader’s decision, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop told ABC TV’s Insiders show that the Opposition still saw prospects of a return to government.