Leaders begin job of forming next government

7:17 pm on 23 August 2010

By Radio New Zealand's political editor Brent Edwards

Political leaders in Australia are beginning the job of forming a new government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott are reaching out to a handful of independent MPs and the Green Party as the haggling begins.

Already commentaries in Australian newspapers are lamenting the election result, which has left neither major party with a clear majority to govern. It is reminiscent of the early days of MMP in New Zealand.

While all the votes are still to be counted, the ABC predicts a final result giving the Coalition 73 seats, Labor 73, independents three and the Green Party one.

The election result has thrown up the country's first hung parliament since 1940, raising fears of political uncertainty dragging on for months or years until the next election.

New kind of politics

At the federal level, politicians have no experience of managing a minority government. They have no experience of negotiating support arrangements with other parties or independents to form a government.

Both Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott could do worse than ring their counterparts in New Zealand to get advice on how to do it.

The situation is further complicated in Australia.

Not only does neither party have a simple majority in the lower house of Parliament but in the upper house, the Senate, they will have to rely on support from the Green Party for legislation from the middle of next year.

This will impose a new kind of politics on Canberra.

Ms Gillard says she recognises voters have sent a message that they want politics to change.

But at the same time she also argues Labor remains the legitimate government and is in the best position to form the next.

Mr Abbott, who seems likely to end up with 73 seats in the Parliament, says Labour has lost all legitimacy to govern. He seems to believe the Coalition now has the mandate to govern.

Neither party leader, at this point, seem to recognise none of them has a mandate to govern.

Lengthy negotiations ahead

That mandate will now come only after what could be lengthy negotiations with four independent MPs - Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie - and the Greens.

The risk now to Australian politics is that those negotiations are driven by self-interest and power politics, the same sort of politics voters have effectively voted against this election.

All parties face risks in the process. If either Labor or the Coalition have to give away too much to form a government they are likely to lose their legitimacy in the eyes of their supporters.

They will be seen to be buying support, in the same way they were criticised for trying to buy votes in key marginal seats during the election campaign.

Mr Abbott faces particular problems.

Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter are all former National Party members, which might make them more sympathetic to the Coalition.

But all fell out with their former party and even on election night there was hostility between the independents and National.

As well, Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott appear to favour Labor's national broadband network and Mr Oakeshott wants an emissions trading scheme.

Mr Abbott says he will be pragmatic about the broadband network.

But will it mean going back on his campaign rhetoric and promises? Just days ago he said the national broadband network was too expensive.

Risks for all

For the independents there are also risks. They hold the seats they do, partly because they are beholden to no party. As soon as they do a deal, they will be tied in some way to the government they prop up.

So, too, the Greens. This has been their most successful campaign. But much of the vote they got was a protest against the behaviour of the two major parties, particularly Labor.

If the Greens are unable to make a real change in Canberra they will disappoint those voters who voted for a different style of politics.

Most importantly there is a real risk to Australia's democracy, a democracy which Ms Gillard says is strong and robust.

But what was obvious from the election campaign was the deep disillusionment of voters with the political process. The way both major parties conducted their campaigns did nothing to change that view.

And it is reflected in the fact more than 5% of votes cast in the election were informal votes.

Change wanted?

Ms Gillard says the election result represents an opportunity for politics to change. She says Australians want a more inclusive, more open government and that they want the conduct in Parliament to improve.

Mr Abbott has not yet commented on whether he reads anything into the election result other than in his view it has removed Labor's mandate to govern.

Australians, though, are dispirited by the political process. In particular they want real political debate, not the spin both major parties ran consistently throughout the campaign.

If the parties get the process right for negotiating the formation of a new government, it could help revive the public's confidence in the political process.

But if old style politics dominate, if factional or sectional interests are put ahead of the national interest, then the cynicism of the Australian public will simply be reinforced.

And in that case, expect another federal election sooner, rather than later.