Australian PM Turnbull scrambles for independent votes as race tightens

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull scrambled on Thursday to gain support from a small handful of independent lawmakers whose backing he will likely need to form a workable government and end a political vacuum after an unexpectedly close election.

There were signs that the instability was beginning to take its toll on the Australian economy, with Standard and Poor's cutting Australia's credit rating outlook to negative from stable, threatening a downgrade of its coveted triple A status.

The Australia dollar fell half a U.S. cent after S&P's announcement, which cited concerns the coalition government would be hampered in its plans to return to budget surplus as it struggles to form a majority government.

“I think what the Australian people want to be assured of today is that there is a clear plan, should we be able to form government, to maintain the fiscal health of this country and that is what the agencies are saying is necessary,” Treasurer Scott Morrison told reporters soon after the S&P announcement.

Mr. Turnbull flew to northern Queensland state on Thursday to meet independent lawmaker Bob Katter, a former member of Turnbull's conservative coalition whose vote has emerged as critical to delivering the 76 lower house seats the embattled prime minister needs to form a new government.

Mr. Turnbull's gamble in calling an election, ostensibly to clear the upper house Senate of what he saw as obstructive minor parties, backfired badly with a much bigger swing to the centre-left Labour opposition than expected.

Independents will have major say

Minor parties and independents have emerged in an even more powerful position, making it less likely Mr. Turnbull will be able to push his reformist economic agenda, which includes a A$50 billion ($37.6 billion) corporate tax break over 10 years, through an intransigent upper house.

Mr. Turnbull, who has even faced calls from within his own party to resign since Saturday's election, will now need the support of minor parties and populist independents in both the Senate and the lower House of Representatives.

That means senators like the maverick Katter and Nick Xenaphon from South Australia state have emerged as potential kingmakers with team members in both houses. Two other lower house independents, Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, have ruled out any deals with the government.

“I can just say to you that I am very confident, very confident indeed that we will form government, form a majority government in our own right,” Turnbull told reporters before meeting Katter.

“But I am of course talking to the crossbenchers as well, as I would do regardless of what our own numbers in the house amounted to,” he said.

Vote counting is now focused on the 1.5 million postal and absentee votes and the process could still drag on for days, or even weeks.

“It's genuinely 50-50,” said respected Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) political analyst Antony Green.

The latest ABC projections gave Turnbull's coalition 72 seats, with Labour on 67. The government picked up one more seat overnight but seven remain too close to call.

Mr. Turnbull, even as he searches outside the coalition for support, also finds himself fighting a rearguard action for the ultra-conservative wing of his own Liberal party led by Senator Corey Bernardi.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 11:39:14 PM |

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