Australia’s political waiting game may be nearing an end, after veteran Labor incumbent Arch Bevis conceded that he was unlikely to defend his seat of Brisbane from the Coalition candidate Teresa Gambaro. Should the result be confirmed, Labor would retain 72 seats in the lower house—4 short of the 76 required for government—and with the conservative Opposition potentially holding the advantage in the battle for the independents’ support.
The final election results will not be formally declared until after Friday, the last day for postal votes. However, the Coalition is likely to finish on 72 seats also, or 73 if the independent-minded newly elected West Australian Nationals MP (member of Parliament) Tony Crook decides that he prefers the leather of Coalition seats to Parliament’s cross-benches.
On Monday evening, Bevis told reporters that he had given up hope of retaining the seat that he had held for 20 years, with his rival Gambaro leading the vote count by around 1,000.
‘I don't believe I can win from here,’ he was quoted saying by AAP. ‘There's still about 7,000 votes to count, but it would take a minor miracle in political terms.’
Bevis attributed an electoral redistribution, the unpopular Queensland Labor government and a poor campaign for his loss, although he failed to single out any individuals.
‘There's enough responsibility for this to share around with all of us, and I don't think there's anything constructive to be had by singling out a person,’ he said.
‘What I do think is important, is there is a genuine, thorough, brutally honest review of how we ended up in this position. We do have to have a good hard look at how we got to this position when we should not have been in this position.’
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has based part of her pitch to the independents on Labor’s majority vote on a two-party preferred basis, despite trailing the Opposition on the primary vote. However, this claim was under challenge on Monday after the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) stated that the Coalition had overtaken Labor on the two-party vote.
With 80.53 percent of ballots counted, the AEC reported that the Coalition was leading the two-party preferred vote by barely 500 votes, or 5,339,839 to Labor’s 5,339,343. On the primary vote count, the figures were also supporting a change of government, with the Liberals, Nationals, Country Liberals and Liberal National Party earning 4.9 million votes to Labor’s 4.3 million.
Should the present political position be confirmed after Friday, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would require the support of Crook—who sat in the Nationals’ first post-election party meeting on Monday—along with three others, likely to comprise the conservative-leaning independents Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.
Labor, by contrast, has already gained a pledge of support from Greens MP Adam Bandt, and with the likely support of former Greens candidate Andrew Wilkie need only secure backing from two other independents to extend Gillard’s two-month-long stay in office.
A decision from the independents is expected within days, with Wilkie indicating he may make up his mind by Tuesday, and Windsor saying he hoped to make a call by the end of the week.
Speaking to the ABC, Wilkie said he was expecting a decision by Friday from the independents.
‘…I'm well aware the Australian people need an answer quick smart and I would hope this is resolved before the end of the week,’ he was quoted saying.
‘I would certainly hope all the independents have made their decisions and we all know the shape of the political landscape in Australia by the end of the week.’
Wilkie, along with the three rural independents, is holding meetings this week with both Gillard and Abbott in an attempt to make their decision, but the pressure to install a new leader is growing.
According to a Galaxy poll published by the Weekend Australian on August 28, a majority of voters in the three rural independents’ seats prefer an Abbott government to that of the country’s first female prime minister.
Support for a Coalition government was highest in Katter’s north Queensland electorate at 56 percent versus 29 percent for Labor, while voters in Windsor’s New England seat in New South Wales (NSW) preferred the Coalition by 55 to 35 percent. The lowest level of Coalition support was in Oakeshott’s seat of Lyne on the mid-north NSW coast, but it still stood at a majority of 52 percent to 38 percent for Labor.
Yet with the Coalition seemingly in the box seat, party mavericks have played into Labor’s hands by riling the key independents.
Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan was forced to apologise on Monday for calling himself ‘the devil’ in a phone call to Oakeshott’s wife, a call which Oakeshott described as ‘unhelpful’ in boosting his confidence in Abbott. Oakeshott also claimed his former party, the Nationals, were ‘trying to run up dirt stories’ about him in tabloid newspapers as part of a smear campaign.
‘This cannot be the way business is done for the next three years if people such as me, [and other independents] Bob Katter and Tony Windsor are going to back them,’ Mr Oakeshott was quoted saying by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Katter also told reporters that a Nationals representative had ‘threw a punch at me on election night,’ although he later clarified his remarks as a ‘verbal’ and not a physical clash.
Adding to the furore, Liberal MP Alby Schultz reportedly telephoned two of the three rural MPs to tell them to support the Coalition. According to the Sunday Telegraph, his call to Windsor ‘was so threatening that Mr Abbott had to apologise to the Tamworth-based MP.’
‘We have some very robust independent-minded members of the Coalition and Albie is certainly one of them,'' Abbott was quoted telling ABC TV.
‘But the point I keep making is that everyone has got to be treated with respect. No one should be pressured or heavied, and that is the counsel I am giving to everyone.’
For his part, Schultz derided the three ex-Nationals for ‘getting lost in their own self-importance.’
‘I can't believe what they're doing. They're strutting the stage with an arrogance I can't believe,’ he was quoted saying.
The verbal stoushes have not been confined to the politicians, however. In Western Australia, the nation’s first Aboriginal elected to the lower house, the Liberal Party’s Ken Wyatt, said he had been subjected to a racist backlash from local voters.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Wyatt’s office had received more than 50 emails and telephone calls from angry voters, ‘accusing him of only being interested in indigenous issues.’
The clashes have soured an otherwise relatively quiet period of closed-door negotiations over the nation’s future, in which the independents have put forward a number of demands for the two rival leaders to consider.
On Monday, the Age reported Tasmanian independent MP Wilkie’s 20-point ‘list of priorities’ for his Hobart electorate of Denison, a list which he had sent to both Abbott and Gillard.
The wish-list included national and local components, with the former including limiting poker machine gambling, a carbon price to combat climate change, federal whistleblower legislation, honouring the UN Refugee Convention, supporting same-sex marriage and boosting welfare payments.
Wilkie’s list followed the release the prior week of a seven-point ‘requests for information’ letter from Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor to the rival contenders.
Their list called for access to Treasury costings of election policy promises, briefings from government officials, ministers and Shadow ministers on key issues such as communications, education, defence and resources and a number of political reforms, including changes to question time, political donations and electoral funding. After initially refusing to submit his policies for Treasury costing, Abbott was forced to back down under pressure from the independents after Gillard’s quick response.
Katter, however, was reportedly set to issue his own demands for his north Queensland electorate, including policies to encourage the use of ethanol in cars.
Meanwhile, Greens MP Bandt said the election outcome had showed the voters wanted action on climate change, and a price on carbon may be the cost of his future support to a Gillard government.
‘At the 2007 election there was enormous hope that Labor would deliver. Labor promised some substantial and quick action on climate and a lot of people were extraordinarily disappointed with their failure to deliver,’ he was quoted saying by AAP.
The comments came after the release of an exit poll from the Climate Institute, which reportedly showed that Labor’s failure to match its pledges on climate change with action may have cost it two seats—nearly enough for its re-election.
Business groups, however, have urged both sides not to backslide on economic reform, amid concerns of a political auction to determine who rules the country for the next three years.
Australian Industry Group Chief Heather Ridout was quoted by the Age as saying the two parties should not ‘trade away policy reforms’ in the negotiations with the independents.
Who will trump whom in the political card game? While the cards will still be in play for a while longer, the Coalition looks to be holding more aces than Labor, unless Gillard can pull off the ultimate card trick.