Features | Politics | Oceania

Australia Leadership Battle On

With an extended office stay for Prime Minister Gillard uncertain, willpower may end up determining long-term leadership of the nation.

Anthony Fensom

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.

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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.

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‘There are five votes in play on the floor of the house…History shows that minority governments can change for a whole variety of reasons and Tony Abbott is saying no more than look back at history and see the circumstances where a minority government has changed,’ she said.

‘It’s changed through independents moving from one side to another, through by-elections, through the government losing control of the business of the house, a whole number of reasons.’

However, the prospects of the Coalition winning over the key independents appear weaker due to Abbott’s tactical move to disrupt the new spirit of consensus decision-making.

As early as September 10, The Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Farr wrote that the Coalition had decided on a ‘take no prisoners’ strategy aimed at exhausting the new minority government and making it battle for every vote. Under the strategy, ministers would be refused a ‘pair’ that would allow them to leave the house for votes, including overseas trips on government business, and even a single absence in the government’s ranks could lead to defeat on the chamber floor.

Queenslandrural independent Bob Katter—the only member of the key ‘gang of three’ independents who backed the Coalition—condemned Abbott’s change of heart, as did Oakeshott and Windsor.

Speaking to ABC News, Katter said: ‘I think [Abbott] has established a most unfortunate reputation for himself. I think he is going in there with an adversarial attitude and is not seeing the bigger picture and I think that he's making a very bad political judgement there.’

Former Labor minister Graham Richardson said the Opposition Leader had ruined his chances of forming a government with the independents’ backing.

‘Already, these two independents are so alienated from him now that it would be very hard to see how he could ever form a minority government,’ he told Sky News TV.

‘So if there is real trouble with the government, I don’t see how he can go to the Governor-General and say, “Hey, I can fix this.”’

Opinion polls conducted since polling day have shown a nation that remains evenly divided, although Gillard maintains a clear lead over Abbott as preferred prime minister. But the polls also show a preference for Labor to remain in office with the support of the independents.

The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, found that Labor recorded its highest two-party preferred vote since the Second World War in Victoria and Tasmania and its second best in South Australia, but its worst in Western Australia for 33 years. Queensland and New South Wales, both with longstanding Labor state governments with poor ratings, also saw poor results for Gillard’s party.

‘The big swing against Labor in Queensland along with several key losses in NSW and WA brought the Gillard government close to defeat. Had there not been a swing to Labor in the southern states, the Coalition would probably have won government,’ Green wrote on his election blog.

New election ‘within months’

What then of the prospects for another election?

According to Griffith University’s Dr Paul Williams, it could come within two years, but likely at a time more suitable to Gillard’s prospects than Abbott’s.

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‘I think they could have an election in 18-20 months and not be seen as opportunistic,’ he told The Diplomat in an interview.

‘If Gillard is 10 points ahead in the opinion polls, because it’s a minority government she wouldn’t need much of an excuse to go back to the people. She could say or do something provocative, the independents would withdraw their support and she would go to the Governor-General and get a House of Representatives election.’

Williams, an expert in Australian politics, said Gillard could enjoy a ‘second honeymoon’ once Parliament resumed, which would prove problematic for Abbott’s leadership.

‘When people get back into Parliament, they start to forget about the election. Wait a few weeks and we’ll get back to normal, if the independents aren’t causing any problems and it seems to be working smoothly, Gillard will get a second honeymoon and the Opposition will go into a temporary phase of irrelevancy,’ he said.

‘If that happens, and I think it’s likely, it could easily spiral downwards for the Coalition. Once you get into the habit of being irrelevant, it’s very hard to break out of it…If that’s reflected in the opinion polls and the Coalition starts to lag Labor again, Tony Abbott’s job will be on the line and [Malcolm] Turnbull will be the first to throw his hat into the ring with Joe Hockey.’

The University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Ian Ward agreed that the Gillard government was unlikely to last its full term. He pointed to the possibility of ‘somebody getting ill or dying in office,’ a change of heart by one of the independents, or a decision by a Labor MP to leave the government.

While criticising Gillard for her ‘hasty judgments’ on such matters as her ministry and the election pledge on the East Timor refugee processing centre, Ward said there were conceivably better times ahead for Labor.

‘If you look at the track record of minority governments in states around Australia, it’s generally the case that in the following election the government has established a comfortable majority of its own,’ he said in a recent interview.

‘I guess it’s conceivable that if Gillard manages to lead through the next two or three years in a constructive way (that this pattern could be repeated), but the numbers are so finely balanced that one by-election could radically change things.’

Both political analysts condemned the election campaign, criticising the two major parties for being overly negative and being governed by polling groups and sound bites, rather than addressing the key issues. Ward described Labor’s campaign as ‘uninspiring, unimaginative and unsuccessful,’ with the Coalition running an ‘entirely negative’ campaign aimed at attacking the government rather than promoting its own policies.

While not the ‘Twitter election’ promoted in some quarters—old-fashioned newspaper and TV journalists still broke the main stories, such as the Labor leaks—social media did play a role in both major parties’ campaigns. Yet according to social media expert Trevor Young, both parties failed to capitalise on the new medium, instead using such channels as ‘one-way mediums to push content rather than engage.’

The big winners of the campaign were the Greens, who gained control of the balance of power in the Senate along with gaining their first MP in the lower house, along with the independents and the increased political diversity of the national Parliament.

The losers, in addition to the nine sitting Labor MPs who lost their seats, included veteran Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey, Family First Senator Steve Fielding and the Labor governments in Queensland and New South Wales, which are both seen as more vulnerable due to the large swings against the party in these states. The so-called ‘small l’ Liberals who backed former party leader Malcolm Turnbull were also considered losers by Ward, with Abbott’s strong campaign having boosted his leadership.

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International implications

The consensus from foreign policy experts is for more of the same under the new Gillard government, particularly with former prime minister and diplomat Kevin Rudd having been appointed foreign minister. Gillard is expected to give the man she replaced as leader considerable leeway in his portfolio, a move which may suit both tactical and strategic purposes.

Rudd’s first trip abroad was to the United States, where he somewhat ironically warned member states of the United Nations against back-flipping on climate change.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly on September 25, Rudd urged members to stick to their commitments on tackling poverty, climate change and disarmament.

Earlier, he met US President Barack Obama at the White House along with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who praised Rudd for helping commit the US to the East Asia Summit.

‘Rudd's trip to the US as his first trip as foreign minister is certainly symbolic of the growing strength and importance of the US-Australia relationship,’ said Devin T. Stewart of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

‘I wouldn't think Rudd would be much different as a foreign minister in his policies under Gillard,’ he added.

Professor Andrew MacIntyre of the Australian National University said Gillard, like Abbott, was more concerned with domestic affairs and little change could be expected on the foreign policy front, at least initially.

‘All [Gillard’s and Abbott’s] strengths and passions are domestically focused. Of course, they would cover the main foreign policy priorities, but I don’t think anyone expects either of them to be strongly focused on foreign policy,’ he told The Diplomat in an interview conducted earlier in the election campaign.

He pointed to Australia’s relationships with China and Japan as needing improvement, while saying that Gillard was ‘not going to invest the same sort of personal time and energy’ that Rudd did into proposals such as the Asia Pacific Community.

‘The fundamental issues are always the same—maintaining the alliance with the United States, helping to build global institutions, building our key bilateral and multilateral arrangements into the region and generally pushing for a more stable and more open economic environment,’ he said.

But while the rest of the region might likely be unconcerned by the result, Griffith University’s Williams said the outcome had reaffirmed the strength of Australia’s parliamentary democracy.

‘The big conclusion you can draw from the result is that the system works,’ he said.

‘We were a divided electorate and therefore we elected a divided Parliament. The system works, and the people’s voice has been heard.’

With the spirit of consensus already crushed, Gillard will need all of her formidable negotiating skills to ensure a prolonged stay in office. Only time will tell whether she will succeed in the battle of wills with Abbott, as adversarial politics returns to Canberra.