Australia has woken up today to the reality of its first hung parliament in 70 years. The 21 August 2010 election has striking similarities with its 21 September 1940 forebear. Like now, Australia was involved in what was still a faraway war which had bipartisan support. Like now Australia had a first term government (with Menzies leading the then United Australia Party) and like now it had an insipid election campaign where Menzies refused to make any specific promises (though his opponent John Curtin was more forthcoming).
In 1940 Menzies and his Coalition partners dropped eight seats to Labor and its allies leaving it with 36 out of 74 seats. It turned to two Victorian independents to keep them in power. Arthur Coles is best remembered these days as one of the founders of Australia’s second largest retail group. But he was also Mayor of Melbourne in the 1930s and he gave that up to fight for, and win, the seat of Henty in 1940. Alexander Wilson meanwhile, was a member of the Northern Irish aristocracy who joined the Australian squattocracy when he moved to Victoria to become a wheat grower. He ran as an independent in 1937 and held on three years later.
Both Coles and Wilson were natural fits for the conservative side of politics and they gave their support to the UAP. With the war worsening in Europe, Menzies spent most of 1941 in London arguing strategy with Churchill. But his position was worsening at home. He was forced to resign in favour of Country Party leader Arthur Fadden. Neither Coles nor Wilson had much empathy with Fadden’s agrarian-socialist philosophy and were both upset at Menzies’ overthrow. They voted against his budget causing the Government to resign in October 1941. After pressure from the Governor General Gowrie, the independents agreed to support a Curtin ministry and the Labor Government muddled through to 1943 when they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Conservatives.
It is difficult to say what lessons, if any, there are from the 1940 experience other than the fact that it is possible to avoid an election for three years despite a lack of a majority. The three key independents in 2010, Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor, would all seem to have impeccable conservative records that make them an ideal fit to back Tony Abbott as the next prime minister. Indeed as an independent state MP in 1991 Windsor kept Liberal leader Nick Greiner in power.
But as I wrote last night there is no guarantee it will happen this time.
Both Katter and Windsor have a lot of unfinished business with former colleagues in the National Party. Both despise Barnaby Joyce and Katter said Nationals leader Warren Truss "attacked me personally last night". Both have also support the NBN rollout, which the Coalition has rejected on the philosophical grounds it is owned by the Government. Katter however, said there is no alternative. “A privatised broadband, I mean, please, don't even talk about it, privatised Telstra has been absolutely disastrous for rural Australia,” he said.
Oakeshott meanwhile has said a key policy of any government should be an ETS – putting him at clear odds with the Abbott agenda. He called climate change a top priority. “I would personally say, let's go back to the Garnaut report and try and get something through based on that,” Oakeshott said today. “The template is there, stick to the script, keep it simple."
Beyond that Oakeshott said he wanted a “fairer go” for regional and rural Australia and it is safe to say there will be a major focus on regional and rural issues by whatever party forms the next government. Given what the Independents are saying today, there is no reason why Labor cannot be that Government. But as the Menzies experience shows – another brutal assassination of a leader would be their death knell.