One of the ladies in the office was at the photocopier near my desk today. “Have they announced the winner yet?” she asked with a slight sense of weariness. She was referring to Australia's 2010 Federal Election which is now two weeks old and still without a verdict. “Not yet,” I replied. “But I think Labor will hold on with the help of Windsor and Oakeshott.” Thinking back tonight on what I said, I stand by it but I may be underestimating the importance of Bob Katter.
Katter along with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are the three candidates yet to declare their hand. With the official fall of Brisbane to the LNP this week, Labor and the Coalition finished equal on 72 seats. Nationals Tony Crook (who took advantage of new boundaries to cause a surprise defeat to Wilson Tuckey) may not take the whip for all matters but would not support a vote of confidence in Julia Gillard. Labor this week signed agreements with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie to make it 74-73 in their favour.
That means Abbott will need the support of all three bush independents to form a government while Labor needs just two of them. The three are all former Nationals in strong conservative seats but they hate their former party with varying degrees of loathing.
The trio are living up to the independent tag and taking their time about deciding. They are well aware of their sudden new power and are determined to use it wisely to their own and their constituents’ best interest. With fellow cross-benchers deciding their position this week and voters like the lady in my office becoming tired of indecision, the bush trio have promised to make their stance known by early next week.
Nothing has occurred in the past two weeks to sway me from the position I took on the day after the election when it became apparent the trio were powerbrokers. “There will be a major focus on regional and rural issues by whatever party forms the next government,” I wrote. “Given what the Independents are saying today, there is no reason why Labor cannot be that Government.”
What I find most odd is why the Coalition has done so little wooing, and have instead mostly antagonised them. I am not sure if this is hubris that they assumed they would vote for them anyway or if they see winning this deadlocked election as a poisonous chalice best avoided. If it is the latter they may be taking a huge risk. An early election is possible given the instability of a Gillard-Greens-Independents Government once a Speaker and by-elections are thrown into the mix. But there is no guarantee the Coalition would do better next time round, and the oxygen of power remains with Labor.
That the Coalition budget costings were exposed as a dud should come as no surprise to the smoke and mirrors way the news of their initial delivery was handled. Their errors and subsequent paranoia over Treasury estimates has left them looking immature and unfit for Government, a fact not lost on the Independents.
Oakeshott and Windsor would be well aware Labor’s $43b NBN plan is not without its costing problems either. But what neither would deny is the tangible benefit their regional electorates would get if high-speed broadband was the norm around the country. They want the improvements in telehealth and long distance education as well as the tearing down of isolation barriers.
The pair have publicly expressed enough sentiment for me to believe they will not oppose Julia Gillard’s attempt to form the next Government. At 76-73 it would not matter in theory which way Katter’s card then falls. However, the three have shown signs of acting as a group so he remains an extremely significant player. It is possible he could sway them back towards an Abbott Government. But it is also possible the “gun-toting climate sceptic and agrarian socialist” could abstain or even vote against a Gillard no confidence motion.
At 77-73 Labor would have a small but workable majority. They will be actively looking at Katter’s 20 point plan and deciding which 14 or 15 they can realistically support. Labor won’t budge on a carbon tax or mining tax, but there are other good ideas in Katter’s plan a clever negotiator like Gillard will want to embrace. It won’t be easy to satisfy the iconoclast from Far North Queensland but not impossible either.
In sporting terms, the election was a draw and there should be a replay. However there is no guarantee that will happen soon. The competitive nature of an election hides the fact that what we are choosing people to govern in our names. The verdict on those currently doing the job was they were not good enough to rule in their own right yet we were not ready to turf them out either. Tony Abbott has done nothing since the election to convince he deserves the chance to rule and his party don’t appear to have any vision other than they are not Labor. The independents should, and probably will, support a minority Gillard Government. It will be then in their own interests to make sure it is successful.