Gillard's Recipe for Certain Turmoil

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Julia Gillard has won the tightest election in Australian history by the smallest margin: she is a minority Prime Minister with a 76-74 floor majority surviving on an alliance with the Greens and three out of four independents.

This is a recipe for weak and uncertain government where Gillard has a majority in neither house. The historic irony is that two independents from conservative regional seats have delivered Labor's victory.

This decision will leave a legacy of bad political blood. It will be fanned because the rural independents, unable to agree, split 2:1 yesterday for Labor and argued their obligation was to prevent another election during the next three years, ultimately an unacceptable and unjustifiable stand of dubious political integrity.

Rob Oakeshott, who has left open the option of joining Gillard's executive and becoming part of the Labor government to which he gave the kiss of political life, will be targeted by the conservative side.

The result guarantees a new flow of funds to regional Australia and will ignite a political war between the pro-Labor rural independents and the Nationals. The Abbott-led Coalition campaign against Labor is already manifest: that Gillard's minority government is without legitimacy.

After a 17-day delay Gillard has saved her prime ministership and perhaps saved her career. The relief in the Labor Party will be palpable. Having lost her majority, Gillard is salvaged by two independents, Tony Windsor and Oakeshott and she promptly visited the Governor-General late yesterday.

Within the Labor Party Gillard will enjoy enhanced authority; it is her skill, discipline and will-to-power that has kept Labor in office and saved the party and herself from a historic humiliation.

Gillard's capacity to manage this diabolical situation should not be underrated.

Abbott could not have come closer to office; he won more seats than Labor and he won more of the primary vote. But Abbott lost out in the "second election" competing for the votes of the independents, thus falling short of a miracle victory. Abbott was gracious and measured in his comments last night, saying it was time to avoid "partisan rancour".

But there is no reason to doubt his election night belief that Labor lost its legitimacy to govern. Abbott said last night the only test for Gillard's survival now was that of "good government" and the timing of the next election depended on her performance. He sensibly said he would not lightly move "no confidence".

Gillard has a survival floor majority that depends on just one vote. A single by-election or major scandal could bring her undone.

Windsor and Oakeshott have not given an unqualified promise on confidence.

The raw numbers mean Gillard may govern for three years. But there are no commitments on her legislative program or her policy. Oakeshott says Gillard can claim no mandate; the independents deny the concept.

Securing contested legislation will become a nightmare. The political logic of this result will undermine pro-market reform and promote government intervention and special fixes.

Gillard has won a new opportunity to renovate Labor in office but is burdened by a minority government dependent on the Greens' Adam Bandt, along with Windsor, Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie. In the Senate, the Greens hold the balance of power. This is a recipe for a combative and possibly bitter parliament.

The sheer unpredictability was captured in Oakeshott's line that "it's going to be beautiful in its ugliness". Quite.

"In remarkable times there is opportunity," Gillard declared last night. She has promised "stable, effective and secure" government. Gillard's mood was relief. It was her decision to authorise the June coup against Kevin Rudd and she carried that responsibility.

Abbott's achievement since becoming Liberal leader last December is astounding. Having triggered the demise of Rudd, he denied Gillard an election majority and, as yesterday morning unfolded, it seemed Abbott might even pull out a victory. Abbott won Bob Katter and when Katter made this announcement in a chaotic media conference at 2.40pm yesterday it made the floor numbers 74 each, leaving Australia's fate to Windsor and Oakeshott.

The reason for Katter's decision was clear. You can like, dislike or mock Katter's 20-point program. But he decided on how far Gillard and Abbott met that agenda and, on that basis, backed Abbott. Katter made his decision on behalf of Queensland, his beloved homeland. But Katter left a lethal postscript: if his friend Rudd had still been PM then he would have decided the other way.

At their 3pm media conference that delivered Gillard office, Windsor and Oakeshott made clear they backed Labor on two grounds: stability and policy. Windsor was down-to-earth, nominating broadband and climate change as the policies that tipped him to Labor. Oakeshott was agonising, sounding like a guilty man and trying to insist it was a "line ball" choice. It was unconvincing.

The policies he nominated as decisive were broadband, climate change and regional education.

But the Windsor-Oakeshott argument on stability is contentious in the extreme. Indeed, it will become a moral and political gift for Abbott.

They backed Gillard, they said, because the best chance for a three-year term was under Labor. Windsor even said Abbott would be tempted to an election some time because he'd be "more likely to win". Oakeshott declined that view but both independents made clear their vote for Gillard was based on a determination to get a three-year parliament; that is, the stability argument.

Yet in this situation there is nothing special, ethical or superior about a three-year parliament. What, pray, is wrong about another election at some stage? Why shouldn't the people get the chance to decide the issue that the independents arrogantly assume is their right to decide for the next three years? How ineffective does the parliament have to become before the people get the right to elect a new parliament?

These comments smack of the independents putting their own interests first. The assumption in the Gillard-Greens-independent position that the parliament must last three years is inconsistent with the Constitution (sections 28 and 57) with its repudiation of a fixed-term parliament and its enshrining the notion of a parliament that endures subject to its workability. This rule is more vital than ever in the present situation.

Understand what happened yesterday. The independents decided to back Labor and to avoid letting the people revisit this contest for another three years.

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