Australia's Julia Gillard forms new government on shaky ground

Australia's Julia Gillard barely squeaked into power. But her slim majority means that passing any legislation will be tricky.

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    Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference with Treasurer Wayne Swan in Parliament House, Canberra, Tuesday.
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After 17 days of political limbo, Australia formed a new government Tuesday with Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the helm. But the parliamentary vote that allowed Ms. Gillard to form a minority government was by the slimmest of majorities and she will have to work hard to prevent it from collapsing, analysts say.

Ms. Gillard became prime minister with 76 seats in the 150-member lower house after three independent MPs and one from the Green Party threw their weight behind Labor. The conservative coalition, led by Tony Abbott, has 74 seats, including one held by a fourth independent.

But this is not a coalition government. Instead, the independents have only committed themselves to supporting the minority government on finance bills and no-confidence motions. That means that Gillard, who deposed her predecessor Kevin Rudd in June, will have to court individual legislators every time she wants to pass legislation. As this is the first minority government in 70 years, that is something Australia's leaders are not used to doing.

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A new culture in Australian politics?

Labor will have to swap its “majoritarian” culture for a more consultative way of working if it wants to lead a stable government, says John Wanna, a professor of politics at the Australian National University.

“The independents are not in coalition with the government; they’re reserving the right to vote any way they like on particular issues,” he says. “That’s going to be the difficult thing for Julia Gillard to manage. If two of them decide they’re dissatisfied and they’re going to support Abbott instead, we could have a change of government without an election.”

That was what happened after Australia's last hung parliament in 1940; the coalition's Robert Menzies formed a minority government with the support of two independents, who a year later switched their support to Labor, whose leader John Curtin became prime minister. That could happen again and would be quite traumatic for a nation accustomed to political stability.

A tantalizingly close race

After last month's election, neither Labor nor the conservative coalition won enough seats to rule. The Greens MP, Adam Bandt, joined forces with Labor straight away, but the four independents kept the nation on tenterhooks. It was the first hung parliament for 70 years in the country.

Last week it seemed that Abbott was on the verge of victory. Then one independent, Andrew Wilkie, declared himself for Labor. Gillard still needed two of the remaining trio. One, Bob Katter, unexpectedly plumped for the coalition Monday afternoon, making it 74 seats all. An hour later, the other two, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, revealed that they were with Labor. The waiting game was finally over.

Gillard, who – like Mr. Abbott – apparently had no inkling of the pair’s decision until they announced it at a press conference, said her minority government would be held to higher standards of accountability, because of its reliance on the independents. “So let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in, let our parliament be more open than it was before,” she said.

Abbott, who came tantalizingly close to being prime minister, said: “It’s a disappointing day, a disappointing result.”

What's next for Australia?

With Gillard back in power – and finally able to call herself Australia’s first elected female prime minister – she will press ahead with a $38 billion national broadband network and a new tax on the mining industry. However, analysts say that her alliance with Mr. Bandt has thrown other plans into doubt.

The Greens are opposed to the processing of asylum-seekers offshore – Gillard hoped to build a detention center in neighboring East Timor. They also want a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. And under the terms of a Labor-Greens agreement signed last week to secure backing, a high-level climate change committee will be established to investigate the best means of setting a carbon price.

Even before announcing their decisions to back Gillard, Mr. Katter, Mr. Windsor, and Mr. Oakeshott – all of whom represent rural constituencies – had extracted promises of better funding for regional hospitals and schools. Both Labor and the coalition also agreed to implement parliamentary reforms that will curtail long-winded speeches, give more power to backbench MPs and increase the scrutiny of ministers.

Gillard plans to announce her cabinet next week, and Professor Wanna believes the government has a good chance of surviving its full three-year term – provided illness does not claim one of Labor’s MPs. It would look like an opportunistic power grab, he says, if Gillard was to call an early election on the basis of improved fortunes in the opinion polls.

“We’ve seen minority governments at the state level that have been stable,” he says. “The British Conservatives are having to learn to work with the Liberal Democrats. Canada has got a minority government, New Zealand depends on the support of another party to govern. This seems to be a trend in some of the Anglo-developed parliamentary systems.”

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