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Australia’s Tryst with Coalition Politics

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 25, 2010

    In what has been called as one of the toughest elections in the history of Australian federal politics, neither the Australian Labor Party nor the Coalition led by Liberals could achieve the magical number of seventy-six in the Lower House which comprises of one hundred and fifty members.

    With almost eighty per cent of the fourteen million votes cast counted, the Australian Labor Party seems to have secured seventy-two seats; the Liberal-led coalition is likely to hold seventy seats. Interestingly, there is more than a five per cent swing against the Labor and the Greens have emerged as the biggest beneficiaries with more than 3.5 per cent of the swing in their favour. The ruling Australian Labor Party could mange a positive swing in just one state, Tasmania, out of eight states that constitute the Commonwealth of Australia.

    Given the fact that voting is mandatory in Australia, it is interesting to look into why Australian voters decided to come up with a split mandate. It is widely believed that more than anything else, the verdict has come against the Australian Labor Party, the reasons for which are not unknown. Just a few months back, Julia Gillard came to power given that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s popularity was on a downward spiral. The Australian Labor Party was apprehensive that it would not win the next election if Rudd’s moves were not undone. Rudd’s not so appreciated decisions such as on climate change and tax on mining and subsequently leaks about Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s personal life became key factors in Labor’s loss. The Australian Labor Party particularly suffered massively in New South Wales and Queensland where voters were disappointed with the incumbent state governments led by Labor and possibly with the unceremonious ousting of Kevin Rudd from the Prime Minister’s post too. It may be noted here that it was Kevin Rudd who in the 2007 federal elections managed to bring a double digit swing in the Australian Labor Party’s favour in Queensland - his home state. This is in stark contrast to the current poll outcome where there is almost an equal swing away from the Australian Labor Party.

    Nevertheless, it must be added that Gillard’s political moves did pay-off and her decision to hold elections barely two months after assuming the Prime Minister’s seat stands vindicated. This is due to the fact that on one hand the Australian Labor Party has not performed as badly as psephologists had predicted, and on the other the Liberals could not cash in on the opportunity and failed to get enough seats to form the government, something Gillard must now be smiling about. It is widely believed that voters preferred to vote for the Greens rather than for the Liberals as an alternative to Labor.

    As a consequence, Australia seems to be heading towards a hung parliament. Chances are that a coalition government will be formed by the Australian Labor Party with support of the Green Party (which will represent the people in the Lower House for the first time) and three independent candidates. ‘The Gang of Three’, as they are called, are likely to play a deciding role in Australia’s political future, as the Labor Party led by Julia Gillard is trying hard to piece together a working majority by way of bringing Green members and independents as coalition partners. Labor is likely to succeed given that the Green Party Member of Parliament from Melbourne, Adam Bandt, has refused to line up with the Liberal-led coalition due to ideological positions. One of the independents Bob Katter, an ex- National Party of Australia member, is also likely to align with Labor rather than with the Liberals owing to his feuds with Tony Abbott and his coalition partners.

    Coalition politics is an old though rare phenomenon in politics ‘Down Under’. The last time Australia faced a coalition government was in 1940 when Robert Menzies’ United Australia Party had defeated the John Curtin-led Australian Labor Party and formed a coalition government with the support of Country Party and two independents. Australia has not witnessed such a situation in the last seventy years. The possibility of the Labor-led coalition coming to power is likely to bring along a shift from the centre to the left and that will have a remarkable impact on the way Australia will be seen in coming months. Issues such as climate change, carbon emissions and nuclear non-proliferation will gain prominence, perhaps even the centre stage. For India, the unfolding scenario might lead to a long term deadlock on the sourcing of Yellowcake from Australia. However, with the effective presence of the Greens, India-Australia cooperation on renewable energy and clean energy technology could further shape up to yield benefits for India.

    How stable or unstable the government will be is something that only time will tell. One thing, however, is certain; and that is the likelihood of political and ideological compromises the coalition members will have to make. A ‘Labor government with Independent-Green characteristics’ will have an impact on the government’s style of functioning and might lead to changes in the very core of Australia’s domestic and foreign policy orientations.