Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Australia gets a Government

“It's going to be beautiful in its ugliness.” – Rob Oakeshott

After an at times exhausting and agonising delay, Australia has a new Government. Julia Gillard has become the first woman to win an Australian Federal Election. But the slow unveiling of his victory led to a final day of high drama that at times almost descended into farce. Never mind “horserace journalism”, this was part Melbourne Cup, part Survivor and part penalty shoot-out.

The fate of government lay in the hands of three bush independents for 17 days and they played their hands today with great care. When the three met this morning they would have discussed their final position - for a while only they knew who was going to be the next Government. Katter was up first to speak to the public. “I’m backing the Coalition,” he said early on.
But knowing he had chosen the losing side, the rest of his conference was about praising the returning Government:
“I like Julia personally”
“Kevin's thinking and my thinking are obviously very similar,”
“Mr Katter said he did feel a responsibility to provide stable government, hinting he could offer support to Ms Gillard if she formed government.”
“He paid tribute to Ms Gillard and said he could work with her if she was returned to government.”
He concluded by saying Abbott had only beaten Gillard on eight of his 20 points.

Windsor was next up. After rambling for several minutes, he said he swung on climate change and the fear Tony Abbott would rush to the polls the moment the Coalition was in a winning position. Labor’s more ambitious broadband plan was the clincher. His decision put Labor one ahead with one to go.

The last word belonged to Rob Oakeshott. He out-Windsored Windsor and picked his way through politically neutral language for 17 excruciating minutes to milk what was becoming a long moment. There finally came a point where he could no longer avoid saying what was becoming increasingly obvious: Broadband was the killer for him too. The last of the people’s representatives had spoken, and Julia Gillard was confirmed as the leader of the government.

The choice of broadband as the deal-breaker is instructive. In a grim campaign of attrition, the $43 billion NBN was one of the few imaginative offerings from each side. Tony Abbott ran a great campaign to get the Liberals so close to Government after being unelectable barely six months ago. Abbott launched his run based on personal virility while presenting a small face to the enemy. The weather vane, the people skills and the mad monk were all hidden away and he ran a relentless campaign of negativity.

The brawling boxer in him bruised his way through the entire 15 rounds and he only suffered a narrow defeat from the judges. Yet there remains a sense of inevitability around him that suggests he will never become Prime Minister. Former Liberal insider Andrew Elder certainly thinks Abbott never believed himself good enough though Elder also unashamedly says his site is for “Abbott Sceptics”.

Labour powerbrokers weren’t so sceptical. They were so spooked Abbott would win they robbed themselves of one of the key advantages of incumbency barely weeks before the election: leadership stability. Though Rudd’s poll numbers were sliding rapidly from the heady days of 2008, his departure was a major shock. Common wisdom was that Rudd would step aside sometime between the second and third term of office to allow his obviously talented deputy a chance shine at the top.

But the combination of Rudd’s pre-poll nerves with Abbott disciplined attacks imperilled the second term to the point where common wisdom was ignored. Rudd fell on his own sword rather than test the numbers. He was influenced by those who can quickly take the temperature of the party (unfairly maligned as “faceless men”).
Julia Gillard was appointed Prime Minister with blood on her hands. A poor campaign and damaging leaks saw Labor’s lead evaporate by polling day.

But in the one poll that counted it did not dip below 50:50. The electorate did not quite want her removed from office. With the sorry saga of her installation over, Gillard quickly changed. While Abbott assumed the pose of command, Gillard simply commanded.

The contrast can’t have escaped the attention of Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter who had easy access to both leaders. The hung parliament is serendipitous to them and they are well within their right to use their new bargaining power with all their might. The sword is double-edged. Oakeshott and Windsor went against the natural conservatism of their rural electorates to support her – a decision that could cost them both at the next election. Katter was cuter, avoiding the wrath of his own voters while slyly signalling he would abstain on supply making the real vote 76-73. A margin of 3 may come in useful in the event Andrew Wilkie goes rogue.

Abbott meanwhile is left high and dry. He relies on favourable by-elections (Kevin Rudd perhaps?) to get him another early tilt at the crown. This Government is going to chew every piece of legislation carefully so that there is no other excuse for an early engagement. The Greens get the balance of power in the Senate next July and their new Coalition binds them to fealty. They too have no desire for an early election. They know Labor will not squander the benefit of incumbency a second time round. There is no other Prime Minister in waiting on their side, unlike in the Liberals. If this Government rules for two or three years with regular 52:48 polls like they got for the last two or three, they will be returned again in 2012 or 2013. They will have proven a small majority is workable.

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