Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy may never quite be the same again following reforms initiated by the ‘gang of three’ rural independents. As the nation impatiently awaited a decision by the three key lawmakers on which side of politics they would support, the political kingmakers announced changes to the chamber aimed at limiting the one-sided party rule seen in the past.
The reform revolution announced on Monday was followed by news that evening that the final hurdle to the installation of a Coalition government had been removed, with West Australian National MP Tony Crook declaring he would support such a government on no-confidence and supply motions.
The three MPs (members of Parliament)—Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor—had demanded Crook make his position known, saying they would have no ‘genuine’ alternative on which to base their final decision between the two sides without his declaration.
Labor has gained 74 votes in the lower house, comprising 72 of its own MPs and the confirmed backing of Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent Andrew Wilkie, who announced his support for the government of caretaker Prime Minister Julia Gillard after reviewing both sides’ promises for his Hobart electorate.
However, Crook’s pledge to back the Coalition has reduced the deficit to a single seat, and the Coalition only requires the votes of the three independents to claim the right to rule. Crook had asked the Gillard government to abolish its proposed new mining tax—a key issue in the resources-rich state of Western Australia—but its refusal to do so gave him grounds to back his erstwhile supporters.
‘We have been clear throughout the campaign and in the weeks since that because of the mining tax we oppose any Labor-Green government,’ Crook was quoted saying by the Australian.
‘I will support the Coalition to form a minority government, but I would like to make it clear there has been no commitment or agreement on our key policy; therefore I will be on the cross benches until that policy is met.’
Crook reportedly had demanded a ‘fairer’ share of tax revenue for his state, along with additional funding for infrastructure projects.
His decision, along with the Coalition’s belated agreement to the parliamentary reform proposals, was said to constitute the last barrier to a decision on the nation’s government by the three independents.
Earlier Monday, the three announced that the Federal Parliament would in future have an independent Speaker and question time would be reformed as part of a package of reforms agreed to by both Labor and the Coalition.
‘The Australian political system up until now has been overly dominated by the executive and the Parliament has played a secondary role to the executive, the ministry and, in the last Parliament, the gang of four,’ New South Wales independent MP Oakeshott was quoted saying by the Australian at a joint news conference in Canberra with Labor's Anthony Albanese and the Coalition's Christopher Pyne.
Under the reforms, which are set to be implemented regardless of which party forms the new government, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker will be from alternate political parties and both will be blocked from attending party room meetings.
Question time will no longer serve as a platform for ruling party ministers to give lengthy tirades on chosen subjects, helped by compliant so-called ‘Dorothy Dixer’ questions from the back benches. Instead, questions will be limited to 45 seconds and the answers to 4 minutes, although a minister may seek the ‘leave of the house’ to extend their time.
Answers also must be ‘directly relevant’ to the question asked, with the Speaker to enforce the relevance, and with a proportionate share of questions given to non-aligned MPs as part of a question time aimed at allowing for 20 questions in a normal session.
Oakeshott said an expanded selection of bills committee would allow for more legislation to be introduced by non-aligned MPs, with all bills to be referred to the committee. A new parliamentary budget office would provide independent costings to all MPs, ending the row over election promises seen in the current and former election campaigns, while a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner would consider ethical issues.
And in a move tried by Labor in 2008, but scrapped under Coalition pressure, Friday sittings of Parliament would be devoted to private members’ bills.
Albanese told the Australian that the reforms would make the Parliament ‘a better place.’
‘I'd be confident, regardless of whether Labor has a majority in the future or the Coalition, that this will be a permanent reform to the culture of the Parliament,’ he was quoted saying by the Australian.
Coalition MP Pyne, also the manager of Opposition business, said he was happy with the reforms despite their ‘difficult birth.’
‘It's been a difficult birth because since 1941 there has not been a hung Parliament, so whether the Labor Party has been in office or whether the Coalition has been in office, the appetite for reform of the Parliament wasn't present,’ Pyne said.
Oakeshott said the agreement was the last item on the independents’ agenda prior to deciding on the nation’s political future.
A decision is expected Tuesday morning, more than two weeks after the August 21 poll that produced a hung Parliament, with Labor’s former majority in tatters and the Coalition’s Tony Abbott within reach of a stunning surprise victory.
Of the three, Katter is seen as more conservative than his two fellow country MPs—all former members of the right-leaning Nationals—and is expected to back an Abbott government.
Windsortold reporters that the 3 would likely make a group decision to avoid any potential of a 75-all split between both major parties.
‘I really want to talk to the other 2 about the possible prospect of a 75-all, in which case we might have to even rethink our own thoughts,’ he reportedly told ABC radio.
‘I don't know how the other two are going to vote. We're going to put our cards on the table today. The main objective here is to see if we can get to something that's stable. If we can't get to something that's stable we may well end up back at the polls.’
While Katter said he had spent time with Abbott’s chief of staff and Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, he also said he had spent two nights at the Canberra residence of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In a somewhat bizarre twist to the tale, the ousted former Labor leader was reportedly twisting the arm of his Queensland colleague to back the Gillard government.
Meanwhile, it was reported by the Australian that Windsor had proposed a private member’s bill aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions—a policy favoured by the new Labor-Greens alliance. Windsor also told the Sunday Age that he preferred Labor’s policy on its national broadband network.
Oakeshott has also noted that the new government would have to ‘get used to’ an upper house dominated by the Greens, which could be a factor in his final decision-making.
In an opinion poll reported by the Sunday Age, 37 percent of voters wanted the 3 independents to support a minority Labor government, compared with 31 percent who said they should back the Coalition.
However, another poll reported by News Limited publications found that 56 percent of voters favoured a return to the polls rather than endure 3 years of minority government.
The independents will not be able to make a final decision this week based on the vote count, with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) announcing that a complete tally may not be available for another three weeks.
According to AEC data, with 87 percent of the two-party preferred vote counted, Labor was trailing the Coalition by around 2,700 votes, and had already lost on the primary vote tally to the Coalition.
Late reports had Labor seeming more confident that it had won the independents over, after a number of gaffes involving prank calls and other harassment by over-anxious Coalition figures.
But regardless of the final outcome, Australia’s Parliament is set for a new dose of democracy. Both major parties had better start getting used to it.