Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard barely retained power when the last two independent legislators made kingmakers by deadlocked elections ended a tense 17-day standoff and agreed to join her government. Her next challenge? Keeping the unlikely bedfellows of her coalition together.
Gillard managed Tuesday to persuade sufficient independent lawmakers to support her center-left Labor Party to form the first minority government in the House of Representatives in 67 years.
Australia’s first female prime minister promised the government will be stable over the next three years, although the defection of a single lawmaker would bring down her administration. While Labor expels lawmakers for failing to vote along party lines, Gillard must get three disparate independent lawmakers plus one from the Greens party to support her legislative agenda.
That agenda includes imposing a new 30 percent tax on iron ore and coal miners’ profits, which are burgeoning with the voracious demand for raw materials from Chinese and Indian manufacturers, and making Australia’s biggest polluters pay for carbon gas emissions.
Her newfound supporters have their own agendas. The Greens want gays to be allowed to marry and Australian troops withdrawn from Afghanistan while independent Andrew Wilkie wants federal action to protect problem gamblers from poker machines.
Gillard has rejected legal recognition of gay marriage, but has agreed to allow a parliamentary debate on the future of Australia’s deployment of 1,550 troops in Afghanistan. She has agreed to take legal advice on what federal powers the government has over the availability of poker machines, which are regulated by state legislation.
“No one should underestimate the problems Julia Gillard’s got,” said Australian National University political scientist Norman Abjorensen.
“She’s got to satisfy people on the left and right of Labor and it’s a very uneasy coalition of interests to keep in check on every available issue,” Abjorensen added.
Among foreign government leaders to congratulate Gillard on forming a government were British Prime Minister David Cameron and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
The British conservative leader and Gillard spoke by phone Tuesday, and both stressed their commitment to the Afghanistan mission, Cameron’s spokesman Steve Field told reporters.
Key, the conservative leader of Australia’s neighbor New Zealand, said he had already established a strong relationship with Gillard since she came to power in an internal Labor Party coup less than three months ago and he looked forward to continuing to work with her.
The government will be unstable by the standards of modern Australia, where parties have governed with strictly disciplined majorities since 1943.
But some analysts believe that Gillard’s minority government would be more stable than one created by opposition leader Tony Abbott’s conservative coalition, which enlisted only 74 of the 76 seats it needed in the 150-seat House of Representatives.
Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist, said Abbott, who rules out ever making polluters pay for their carbon emissions, could not deal with the Greens, who support charging polluters.
The Greens won 12 of the 76 seats in the Senate, where neither Gillard nor Abbott command a majority.
“If Tony had become prime minister, he would have quickly run into serious trouble with the Senate,” which would have resulted in an early election, Economou said.
In return for the Greens’ support, Gillard has agreed to a range of their demands, including establishing an expert committee to investigate how Australia could introduce a price for carbon gas pollution.
Gillard has also agreed to give up some of a prime minister’s traditional tactical advantages in return for the independents’ support. While prime ministers have the freedom to call elections at times that suit their political interests, Gillard has agreed to confer with allies before setting an election date.
She has also agreed to change rules of parliamentary procedures to give individual lawmakers a greater voice.
The last two independents to agree to support Gillard’s government, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, are former members of the conservative Nationals party, which is part of Abbott’s coalition.
Gillard rewarded the two rural-based lawmakers by promising 10 billion Australian dollars ($9 billion) in new investment for rural schools and hospitals.
She has also offered Oakeshott a Cabinet post, which he had yet to accept.
Oakeshott said on Tuesday that governing with the support of four lawmakers from outside Labor would be “ugly, but it’s going to be beautiful in its ugliness.”
Gillard said her deal to deliver a government demonstrated that the Australian political system worked.
“This process, born of parliamentary deadlock, has resulted in more openness, transparency and reform in how we conduct our parliament and the business of government than at any other time on modern Australian politics,” Gillard told reporters.
“Can I say we live in a lively and a resilient democracy and it works,” she added.
The lawmakers from outside Labor have agreed to oppose any no-confidence motion in the prime minister which would bring down her government.
Abbott said it was up to the government’s performance whether it survived the full three-year term or was brought down by such a motion.
“If the government is seriously incompetent, it should be gone as quickly as possible,” Abbott told reporters.