Skating on thin ice

Print edition : October 08, 2010

Julia Gillard manages to stay on in power but faces the challenge of keeping her government stable and effective.

in Singapore

Prime Minister Julia Gillard after the general election, in Melbourne on August 22.-WILLIAM WEST/AFP

AUSTRALIA'S first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, sees an opportunity in every challenge, and there are plenty of them as she seeks to settle down as a leader elected to that position in her own right.

On September 7, more than a fortnight after the August 21 snap general election, which she herself had opted for, Julia was able to turn the political tables on her challenger Tony Abbott and stay on as Prime Minister. As this is being written, she counts on the support of four parliamentarians outside the ranks of her Australian Labour Party and remains in power by the wafer-thin majority of one in a finely hung parliament. And Abbott, as the leader of the opposition Liberal-National Coalition, now stands in a position of being able to try and topple her in a dicey game of parliamentary numbers.

Surely, the game of government formation was not as simple as the bare fact of her success might indicate. Thereby hangs an unusual tale of the strengths and fragilities of Australia's long-established democracy and shifting political loyalties.

Both Julia and Abbott are young for their jobs by the book of traditional politics. They are on the right flank and the wrong side of fifty respectively. By their world views, Julia straddles the left side of the political spectrum while Abbott is conservative in the not-untypical Western ethos of Australia. A general view across this political divide is that both leaders have demonstrated considerable political skills, somewhat unsuspected in either case, in making sense of and managing the fallout of the August 21 general election.

For the first time in nearly seven decades, Australia is faced with a hung parliament, where a few independents hold the balance of power. On the night of August 21, the country witnessed the unusual spectacle of no leader being able to claim victory in an essentially two-party electoral race.

Tony Abbott, opposition leader. Julia's slender majority leaves him with an opportunity to try and turn the political tables on her.-PATRICK HAMILTON/AP

With the total electorate being of the order of 14 million at present, not at all large by the standards of India or the United States as democracies, Australia had long got used to knowing the winner within a few hours of counting, which invariably would begin soon after the close of polling. The story this time was entirely different. Within hours of counting, both the main political camps sensed that Julia, who gambled on an early general election to seek legitimacy as Prime Minister, would not be able to muster an absolute majority of at least 76 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives. It was also clear that the magical figure would elude Abbott as well. In those circumstances, neither conceded defeat, and both kept their hopes alive.

Julia was the first to speak and she vowed to continue the fight to form a stable and effective government. Abbott, for his part, was convinced that she did fail to secure a categorical mandate to stay in office. He did not forgo his timely chance of alluding to the circumstances in which she first assumed office over two months ago by toppling Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in a political coup within the Labour Party. Abbott sought to drive home this point by emphasising that the emergence of a hung parliament was a clear signal that she lost political legitimacy to stay at the helm. However, he cautioned the opposition camp against premature triumphalism.

Wafer-thin majority

By September 10, even as Julia began forming a new government, it became clear that both these leaders were prophetic on August 21 at least, in limited but significant ways. She has certainly won this particular fight but continues to face the challenge of keeping her new government stable and effective. For Abbott, it was just as well that he did not want the opposition to be triumphal without power firmly in hand. Nonetheless, Julia's wafer-thin majority does leave him with an opportunity to try and turn the political tables on her.

A critical issue is whether Australia's political culture in 2010 will be hospitable to new manoeuvres by either the Liberal-National Coalition or the Labour to change the power coefficient. While Julia knows that she will have to skate on thin ice and do that skilfully, Abbott is no less aware that a false move by him to unseat her could cost him in the popularity stakes for the future. On September 7, as Julia's political fortunes rose, he refrained from asking his followers to set out on a course of confrontation or collision with the new government. He would rather like to lead like an opposition statesman a role implicit in his humorous aside in hoping that he would not like to be the best-ever opposition leader to have never become the Prime Minister.

In such an unusual political ambience of success and its opposite, Abbott did re-dedicate the opposition Coalition to the role of functioning as a credible alternative government on the floor of the House. Towards this end, he would ferociously hold the new Julia government to account. He sought legitimacy for such a role by arguing that the Coalition had the better of Labour in terms of the seat tally in the new House and the share of primary vote as well as the two-party preferred vote.

Art of the possible

If Abbott, who began leading the Coalition less than a year ago, played the card of an opposition statesman soon after losing his bid for power in this round, Julia's record of competitiveness, as at the time of her weighing choices for the composition of a new government, was no less impressive. Ever since she entered the political ring over a decade ago, Julia has revelled in practising the art of the possible without losing sight of her grand dreams of a rapid rise as a leader. In doing so, she has kept in focus the decisive importance of a political narrative infused with a vision for the future of her constituency, which is now the country as an integral entity.

Viewed in this perspective, the manner in which she charted her path to power at this time becomes easier to understand. Even as the counting was under way on August 21 and as she realised that the political wind had not blown decisively in her favour, Julia quickly began courting potential independent-winners for political support in the likely event of a hung parliament. This was evident from her address to her party on that night when she pledged to fight on and refused to concede that the people had not granted her an outright mandate.

From then on, as the Australian Electoral Commission proceeded with the counting with due care and diligence, Julia intensified the battle for the support of independents. Abbott was slow off the starting block, apparently emboldened by the reading that the political tide had turned against Julia at the ballot. A particularly difficult issue, from his standpoint, was that three independents Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor were all formerly associated with his coalition partner, the Nationals. Another independent, Andrew Wilkie, was the very same intelligence officer who blew the whistle, warning Australia before the previous Liberal-National government, led by John Howard, sided with George W. Bush's America in its ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Julia Gillard and, to her right, Treasurer Wayne Swan in discussion with independent Members of Parliament (from left) Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor in Canberra on August 25.-ANDREW TAYLOR/AFP

Abbott quickly realised that his best bet in the race to form a minority government with the support of independents was to try and convince them that any of their plans to support Julia should be weighed against her failure to win a decisive mandate, the critical issue in the snap general election.

Julia tends to project herself as a straight-talking leader who did not set out to break the glass ceiling in order to become Australia's first woman Prime Minister. However, she often leaves no one in doubt that she is not the one who will be afraid of the spacewalk after soaring into the outer space of politics. Unsurprisingly, she has now sought the support of the independents by raising the template of political debate to an altogether high plane of reforms in governance. To this extent, she forced Abbott on to the back foot by redefining the issues, as if her failure to secure a decisive mandate in her own right was a matter of no importance at all. This was evident from the substantive agenda in her overtures to the independents.

Her narrative could be summed up as follows: the people, in voting for a hung parliament after nearly 70 years, wanted to send a clear message to the leaders across the political spectrum. Australians wanted their leaders to find common ground for governance. And, this could be achieved only though a new paradigm of politics and public administration. In visualising such a paradigm, she was second to none in fact, she would be best placed to lead this national process of substantive reforms.

Julia offered Oakeshott, Windsor and Katter a package of measures designed to close the development gap between regional Australia and metropolitan Australia. The three independents had, on their own, come together to explore which side to support. Towards this end, the trio sought and obtained the Treasury's estimates of the public funding required to implement the poll promises of Labour and the Coalition respectively. With Abbott having initially suspected the impartiality of the Treasury in a highly surcharged political atmosphere, Julia was able to turn this issue to her advantage. In her narrative, she could be trusted more than Abbott for transparency in governance. In the end, it suited her that the independents detected what was described as a huge black hole in Abbott's funding plans for translating the Coalition's poll promises.

As a critical interlude in this process of decision-making by the trio of independents, an agreement was reached across the federal political spectrum for reforms in parliamentary procedures. An idea much talked about was the need for an independent Speaker in the House. Another strand of thought was that the constitutionally validated three-year term of any House of Representatives should not be trifled with.

In such a new ambience of debate on issues, as distinct from a debate on parliamentary numbers, Oakeshott and Windsor chose Julia, while Katter sided with Abbott. Oakeshott cited the glamour or reforms especially that of a fair deal for regional Australia while Windsor was fascinated by Labour's plan for a national broadband network. On a parallel track, Wilkie, the whistle-blower, opted for Julia's continuance in office after she agreed to address his local concerns about hospital and health care reforms and gambling excesses. With the Greens, which secured a seat in the House for the first time, sensing that Labour, not the Coalition, would be its natural partner, the parliamentary numbers fell in place for Julia.

While issues relating to climate change, health care, education and the broadband form the core of Julia's domestic agenda, her foreign policy priorities remain a matter of some speculation. All that she did, immediately on being assured of a continued stay at the helm, was to emphasise the sustainability of Australia's long-established alliance with the U.S.

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