The people of Australia have spoken and delivered a very bloody nose to Julia Gillard’s Labor Government today. Whether the blow is enough to knock it out remains to be seen. With three seats out of 150 still in doubt at the time of writing the likely make-up of Australia’s next parliament has the Coalition with 74 seats and Labor with 71 seats. As well there are 3 ex-Nationals independents, a Green and ex-Green. Voting purely along a likely left-right axis, that makes it 77-73 to Tony Abbott's Coalition and in theory enough to rule, especially if he can convince one of the independents to be the Speaker.
But his party falls short of an outright majority so Abbott cannot yet stake his claim to be Prime Minister. Australia is governed by the Westminster Convention even if these conventions can sometimes prove tenuous just as when it was stretched to breaking point in 1975. In his post-election speech Abbott offered “the Australian people” his team as an alternative “stable government”. But as Abbott well knows, it’s out of their hands right now. Gillard refused to concede tonight and remains Prime Minister. The Governor General Quentin Bryce (a Labor appointee) will have to offer her the first right of refusal to gain "the confidence" of the Lower House.
Gillard will probably accept and attempt to manage a minority government. This will be at best a short-term manoeuvre to gain time to fight another election. She might be able to rule for a while with the tacit support of the Independents if she puts forward legislation that will get what they want for their constituents. After all, this dull election campaign has proven one thing. With the exception of the NBN and the ETS (neither of which will exist much before 2013) there is little differentiation between the parties. Yet a change of government is a big thing and it might be easiest to get what you want from the party already in power. As Tony Windsor said tonight "the most important issue here is stability of governance”. They may find the acceleration of the NBN in their areas an acceptable price of support.
Gillard can rule with the independents and Greens if she can manage the difficult balancing of rural interests with environment concerns. The ETS delay may yet prove convenient. She has no major agenda that she needs to push through in the next few months. A few anodyne bills while the parties squabble through to February may be what she needs. And then with Latham and Rudd just a bad memory they get back the six or so seats they need to form outright government.
But if the independents decide to play a bigger game then Gillard is in trouble. If they publicly come out and say they will support Tony Abbott for three years as the next prime minister than she will have to resign.
If that happens, Labor has no one to blame but itself. For two and a half years of government Kevin Rudd and his party enjoyed stratospheric polls as people enjoyed the change from Howards End and the impressive weathering of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile the Liberals recycled their leaders until it found one with the stomach to take the fight to the Government.
When the polls finally levelled as they normally do closer to an election, Labor panicked and sacked the boss. Australians didn’t like being told their Prime Minister was being removed without their say so and Queensland particularly resented losing their man. The hope that Gillard as a woman would affect the female vote was possibly countered by many men voting Abbott. If people weren’t sure the “mad monk” should be Prime Minister, there was a lot who didn’t like one being an “atheist antichrist” either.
The make-up of the Senate is more assured at this stage. The Greens had a great result electing senators in all six seats. With the Coalition on 34 and Labor on 31, the Greens now have a clear balance of power with 9 seats. Allied to Bandt’s stunning and historic lower house victory in Melbourne, and former Green Andrew Wilkie’s likely win in Denison this is a watershed election for the environmental movement who must now move deeply inside the tent.
A jaded electorate won’t take kindly to be sent back to the polls in the next few months. Who they blame for that will be whoever is seen as the most obstructionist in the negotiations to come. The animus of the party leaders remains crucial. Abbott is assured and now very confident as Liberal leader but still has obvious flaws and a fractured power base. Turnbull is still waiting in the wings to pounce again.
The Labor Government has no obvious candidate out there to replace Gillard (other than Rudd) and our first female Prime Minister may yet grow in the role that Rudd squandered. But the next few months are critical. If she can learn to negotiate with the Greens without needling Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter, a saner long-term Australian policy to the overwhelming problem of climate change may yet emerge from the chaos of representative democracy. Otherwise Gillard's bloody nose will be the least of our problems.