‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,’ sang Jimmie Davis in the famous 1940 Louisiana state song. Some 70 years later, with Australia facing its first hung Parliament since the hit tune’s recording, the sun was shining Tuesday on Labor’s Julia Gillard as she finally secured the votes needed to become the nation’s first elected female prime minister.
‘Let's draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in, let our Parliament be more open than it was before,’ she told reporters in her victory address.
But for Gillard, September 7 started out much foggier. Despite being backed by some of the country’s political heavyweights, including Australian Greens MP Adam Bandt and leftish independent Andrew Wilkie, with a total of 72 elected Labor MPs Gillard had still needed two more votes to gain the required majority in the lower house; Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s Coalition needed three.
An expectant nation awaited an announcement from the three key rural independents—Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor—who had promised to end 17 days of political uncertainty by committing their support to either Gillard or Abbott.
Katter declared his backing for Abbott around noon, but both sides then had to endure a nerve-wracking wait for the two others to pick a winner. And, it ended up being the Labor leader who emerged smiling rather than her conservative opponent.
Speaking after the fateful decision, a relieved-looking Gillard pledged to ‘serve the Australian people’ in a new era of open government. Vowing to deliver ‘stable, effective and secure government for the next three years,’ Gillard praised the resilience of the nation’s young democracy.
‘We live in a lively and resilient democracy—and it works,’ she said.
For Abbott and his colleagues, the outcome was a bitter blow given the conservative political backgrounds of the three kingmakers who ended up swinging the vote. Abbott stands also as the leader Liberal Party of Australia, the centre-right leaning Australian political party that makes up half of the Coalition.
‘The Coalition won more votes and more seats than our opponents, but sadly we didn’t get the opportunity to form a government,’ Abbott said at a press conference. ‘Obviously I’m disappointed about that, but that’s our system.’
He said he hoped Labor would rediscover its ‘soul’ and govern more effectively than it had under the leadership of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
‘For our country's sake, I hope Labor provides better government than they have for the last three years,’ he said.
The former Howard government minister added that he was determined not to become another forgotten, failed political leader. ‘My challenge now is to ensure that I’m not the best opposition leader never to have become prime minister,’ he said.
To rub more salt into the wound, having already won the primary vote, the Coalition had also been leading the two party-preferred vote (by just 1,369 votes) with 88 percent of this vote counted. Including West Australian National MP Tony Crook in its tally, the Coalition had also won 73 seats to Labor’s 72.
Abbott is expected to be re-elected unopposed at a party room meeting set for Thursday, but it could have been a different scenario for the Liberal leader had the independents chosen as their electorates apparently expected.
One of the three figures who would tip the final scale in the 2010 election, maverick MP Bob Katter, was the first to announce his support for an Abbott government, and asserted that he was acting in the interests of his conservative North Queensland electorate.
Katter said Gillard's refusal to scrap Labor’s proposed new mining tax and its emissions trading scheme were stumbling blocks, along with the party’s failure to act on ethanol or Queensland’s ‘Wild Rivers’ legislation.
While Katter took only eight minutes to reveal his hand, it took some 30 minutes for Oakeshott and Windsor to declare their stance, with Oakeshott taking considerably more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame to pledge support for Gillard.
Labor’s national broadband network and climate change policies were stated as reasons for their support, along with its policies on regional education. Both contended that Labor was more likely to deliver stable government for another three years, arguing that the Coalition would be keen to quickly go back to the polls in an attempt to secure an outright majority.
‘This isn’t a mandate for any government,’ said Oakeshott, who rather ironically after calling for limits to point-scoring and rambling speeches in Parliament’s question time delivered his own lengthy speech on his rationale for his decision (according to Oakeshott, the decision to allow Gillard to extend her brief stay in the nation’s top job was ‘an absolute lineball, points decision, judgment call, six of one and half a dozen of another.’)
With the nation waiting on tenterhooks, he finally stated at the end of his speech that he would give his support to Labor on supply and no-confidence motions unless ‘exceptional circumstances determine otherwise.’
The nation’s political centre was set for interesting times, according to Oakeshott. ‘It’s going to be ugly, but it’s going to be beautiful in its ugliness,’ he added.
While the Australian Electoral Commission has indicated that the final vote count may not be completed for another three weeks, Parliament is set to be recalled soon to allow Gillard to test her numbers on the floor of the house.
With the independents who delivered Gillard government vowing to scrutinise every piece of legislation, Australia’s first female leader will be required to use all of her negotiating skills to keep her fragile minority government and its allies together.
The sun may be shining for now, but there are clouds ahead, and Abbott will be hoping they hold a silver lining for the Coalition. In the meantime, though, surely few could begrudge Gillard’s basking in the light of her historic achievement for a little while at least.