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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.

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / September 7, 2010

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a news conference with Treasurer Wayne Swan in Parliament House, Canberra, Tuesday.

Andrew Taylor/Reuters

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Sydney

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.

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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.

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.

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