In the run-up to the Australian government formation, all eyes will be on the game plan of three Independents.
Unusual political moves are normally in sync with unusual situations in the affairs of a nation. This is now true of Australia, where it is believed that a new administration can be formed only by an accord between an established political party or coalition on the one side and a few Independents on the other. This process has so far remained transparent.
As of August-end, the snap general election held in Australia on August 21 is expected to produce only a hung Parliament. Such a widely predicted outcome will be the first of its kind in nearly 70 years at the federal level in a country long used to genuine democratic practices.
The high political drama, in a positive sense of the term, is heightened by the fact that this election was held by the watch of Australia's first woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She had assumed that office just over two months ago in a political coup against Kevin Rudd within the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP).
It was Mr. Rudd who presided over the party's triumph in the previous election less than three years ago. Ms. Gillard is now battling it out to see whether she can stay on at the helm, this time as Australia's first woman leader to be elected by the people as their prime minister.
Her earlier ascension to power was, of course, the result of an internal power-play at the highest echelons of the ruling party. And, in her words, she is now engaged in a political “fight” to stay on at the helm and continue to lead a “stable and effective government.”
Abbott versus Gillard
At the other end of the Australian political spectrum is the opposition Liberal-National Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, seeking to checkmate Ms. Gillard in what he tends to see as her political overdrive to make history. For this, he now finds himself in the strange situation of having to gain the support of the same Independents whom Ms. Gillard needs. She has already indicated that her “world view” is light years away from Mr. Abbott's window on politics and vice-versa. So, she has made no secret of her political resolve to go the whole hog in trying to win the backing of a handful of Independents who might come to hold the balance of power.
As this is being written, the political complexion of new federal House of Representatives in Canberra is far from clear. A general view is that the 150-member House may have at least four to five Independents. Of them, some have had association with the opposition Coalition. And, the Coalition is also keen to count one of them under its own column in a new House. Of relevance as a lesson to the leaders and observers in other democracies, as different from the current players on the Australian political scene, is the game-plan of three of these Independents — Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Bob Katter.
For now, they are acting in unison to the point of attracting criticism that they are willingly or unwittingly paving the way for a political bloc of their own. The point made in such discourse is that they may end up acting contrary to their individualistic political identities. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Abbott has sought to drive home this point by describing them as non-aligned Independents.
What really is their game plan? They first sought briefings from the Treasury about its estimates of likely public expenditure required to implement the campaign promises by Labor and the Coalition respectively.
Ms. Gillard lost no time in agreeing to consider the Independents' demand favourably. Mr. Abbott initially offered only to let these individuals have access to the Coalition's own estimates that were prepared by a non-governmental consultancy firm. He also expressed reservations about subjecting the Coalition's campaign-linked policies to a costing exercise by the Treasury in an emotionally surcharged political atmosphere.
However, the two leaders reached an agreement on August 27. With that, Ms. Gillard said, the Independents should now be able to get the material that they were seeking. The procedural issue, in her view, “is now resolved.” The votes and the attitudes of these Independents “may be critical”, she went on to emphasise.
Mr. Abbott, for his part, maintained that his agreement with Ms. Gillard was not a political climbdown from his earlier position. He said: “The Coalition will brief [the] Treasury before [the] Treasury briefs the Independents, and no information from that full briefing of [the] Treasury by the Coalition will be available to the Government. What this means is that: [the] briefings of the Independents by [the] Treasury can now go ahead without the risk of political interference.”
The general expectation in political circles is that each Independent will now be able to support either Labour or the Coalition on the basis of the Treasury's briefings. But surely these briefings will not be their sole deciding factor. Also unknown at this stage is whether the three will act in unison, as now, in casting their lot with either Labor or the Coalition. Moreover, government-formation may produce other surprises.
For now, they have not run foul of public opinion by acting together in making this critical demand. R.F.I. Smith, a former public servant in Australia, said that the general impression is that they are moving in “a fairly credible way.” They are seen to have set themselves a task of assessing the “bona fides” of Labor and the Coalition respectively.
On the likelihood of defections, experts tend to believe that party affiliations and party discipline are respected in considerable measure.
Australian observers like Robin Jeffrey do not see any similarity between their current poll-related situation and the controversies that accompanied the first-time election of George W. Bush as United States president.
Keywords: Australia politics