Australia election: Independents could be key to forming new government

Independents may play a key role in forming a functioning government after Australia's election ended Saturday without a clear winner.

Andrew Taylor/Reuters
A trio of independent MPs, from left, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott who will decide the shape of Australia's minority government, meet in the Parliament House in Canberra Tuesday.

Australia is still without a functioning government this week after the closest election in decades ended inconclusively on Saturday.

No party secured a parliamentary majority in the Australia election and analysts are predicting weeks of political uncertainty and potentially even a fresh vote.

Enter the independents.

On Tuesday the three independent politicians who hold the key to ending the deadlock held talks in Canberra as counting continued for crucial seats. The two major political blocs – the ruling Labor Party and the opposition conservative coalition – are wooing the independents who could help them form a minority government, the first since 1940.

If neither succeeds in striking a deal, the Australian head of state, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, will be required to choose between either the Labor leader, Julia Gillard, or the coalition leader, Tony Abbott, to form a government.

Not so fast

However, even that constitutional process is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Ms. Bryce was forced to seek legal advice Tuesday on a potential conflict of interest, as her daughter is married to a senior Labor figure, Bill Shorten.

Election officials are still counting absentee and early votes in four closely contested constituencies that will determine the final result.

Of the remaining 147 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house, Labor has won 70 and the coalition 72, according to latest figures, while the independents have four seats and the small Green Party has one. A party needs 76 seats to govern in the 150-member House.

Media commentators are forecasting that Labor and the coalition – consisting of the Liberal Party and their rural-based allies, the National Party – will end up with 73 seats apiece. The Green Party's MP, Adam Bandt, has stated that he will support Labor – meaning that neither of the big parties can rule without the help of at least two independents.

What the independents want

One of the independents, Rob Oakeshott, called for Labor and the coalition to “explore outside the box” and consider forming a unity cabinet. He said the traditional arch-rivals should stop “pretending to be fighting to the death over ideology when they are actually more often than not in agreement on most issues.”

Gillard has not responded to that suggestion. Abbott agreed that the parliamentary process was “needlessly confrontational,” but ruled out the idea of an ideologically mixed cabinet.

As the three independents – Mr. Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, and Bob Katter – continued talking into the night, the party leaders both claimed a superior right to form a minority government. Abbott noted that the coalition had won more votes overall; Gillard countered that Labor had a higher share of the vote once “preferences” were distributed under Australia’s complex voting system.

Abbott also argued that the coalition cared more than Labor about the interests of rural Australia; all three independents represent rural electorates.

Like Oakeshott, Mr. Katter and Mr. Windsor have said they would like Australia to move away from adversarial politics, and to introduce parliamentary reforms. All three have stressed that their priority is a stable government that could survive the full three-year term; they say they will not be swayed by “pork-barrel” promises for their individual electorates.

The center-left Labor Party, which has ruled for the past three years, will remain in control of the caretaker government until the votes are counted and the seats are officially allocated. Election rules allow Gillard to carry on in her caretaker role for up to three months.

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