17 days after the August 21 vote, Labor scraped back into office for a second term by one vote after a weirdly unprecedented national election in Australia - this country’s first “hung” national Parliament for 70 years. Julia Gillard is confirmed as the first elected female Prime Minister, but her government is dependent on three crossbench independents and one Green. Neither the centre right opposition Liberal/National Coalition, 73 seats, or the incumbent centre left Labor Party, 72 seats, could control the 150-member House of Representatives, where government is decided. Four Independents and a Green with the balance of power kept Australia in caretaker mode for more than a fortnight of horse trading deals in policy areas like climate change, fast broadband outside the cities and Parliamentary reform to constrain executive power.
Australian voters habitually give new governments a second chance, but Labor is now surviving only as a minority government. What happened?
The 2007 Australian election was a triumph for Labor’s Kevin Rudd sweeping into office with a healthy House majority of 17 seats. He easily beat the four-term conservative Coalition’s leader, John Howard, in power since 1996 and Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister. Howard even lost his own seat. Rudd at first came across as an economic conservative, strong Christian, bureaucratic but progressive style, full of promises: his major centrepiece an emissions trading scheme (ETS). He labelled climate change "the greatest moral challenge of our times."
On soaring record popularity ratings for two years, Rudd rode high through the global financial crisis with a massive economic stimulus package, while the conservative Coalition tore itself apart, dumping two Opposition Leaders in two years. The third Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, won a party room leadership contest by one vote last November. The media promptly dubbed him “unelectable” and Rudd on track to be easily re-elected for a second term in 2010 - plausible, with unemployment just over 5per cent and Australia dodging the international recession.
Then it all began to unravel. Budget deficits and mortgage interest rates blowing out; scandals over rorts, ripoffs and waste in major Federal programs; big increases in illegal boat arrivals; promises broken; opinion polls and media support trending down. The final straw was the Chinese ambush of Rudd at the Copenhagen climate change conference last February. After creating great expectations of climate change action, Rudd and his entourage of 100 government advisers came home empty-handed.
By late April, Labor verged on crisis, the powerful mining industry fighting a big new tax and younger middle-class Labor voters deserting to the Greens. Spooked by the focus groups, Labor party operatives backed by then deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and other Cabinet powerbrokers persuaded Rudd to backflip on the “greatest moral challenge of our time” and postpone action on climate change for years. This only intensified Labor’s downward spiral with its own younger middle-class voters. By June, polls showed the conservatives in front for the first time since 2007: Labor would lose an election badly; Rudd had lost trust, credibility and the focus groups.
Turning to plan B, the Labor party machine now convinced Julia Gillard late in June to force out a first-term Prime Minister and take over. The government had “lost its way” justified Rudd’s political assassination. Ten weeks of wild politics has followed. After hurried policy patch-ups on mining taxes, climate change and asylum seekers, Julia Gillard rushed prematurely to the late-winter election seeking a mandate for her takeover. Both she and Tony Abbott facing the voters during the 32-day election campaign as fledgling political leaders.
By the second week, the Labor campaign was already destabilised as the Rudd forces took revenge with strategic media leaks of damaging claims about Julia Gillard’s performance inside the Cabinet. As her campaign faltered, Julia Gillard had a ‘West Wing’ moment and declared the “real Julia” would now emerge - not the “other Julia” of the backroom campaign managers. With Labor support plummeting in Kevin Rudd’s home state of Queensland, a fragile Gillard-Rudd mid-campaign armistice was unveiled. But it failed to convince Queenslanders increasingly indignant their elected Prime Minister had been backstabbed, not by their democratic vote but by the faceless men of the party machine.
Despite a massive negative adspend, the Labor campaign stalled while the fairly conventional but effective conservative Coalition campaign gathered momentum. The expectation that Australian female voters would not have the heart to vote out their first woman Prime Minister was fast fading. On election day, 21 August, Labor lost 16 of its 17 seat House majority, eight in Kevin Rudd’s ‘deep north’ home state of Queensland. With Julia Gillard a declared atheist, Christian voters deserted Labor, but agnostics and atheists voted Green and gave their second preference vote back to Labor. One in three Green voters in exit polls would have stayed with Labor if Rudd had not abandoned climate change.
Overall, the opposition conservative Coalition parties won a majority of both primary votes and seats (by one!) for the House of Representatives. The conservatives scored a 2.7% swing with almost 700,000 more primary votes than Labor and a dead-even 50:50 on what is called the the two-party preferred vote under Australia’s compulsory preferential voting system for the lower house. But under the Westminster system, it’s not the number of votes that win, it’s the number of seats controlled in the House. The irony in this for Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is that he won the party leadership by only one vote, then 10 months later missed out on the Prime Ministership by only one vote.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard had a disastrous election campaign and near-death experience after assassinating Kevin Rudd and dashing to the polls for a mandate. But in the hung Parliament hiatus post-election, she beat out the opposition in the cross bench negotiating and manoeuvring that won her a reprieve. With a $10billion assistance package, she won the crucial votes of two out of three “haystack amigos” independent members representing conservative country districts where the Labor vote is 30% or lower.
Minority government is common in scores of democratic societies: like Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Israel - this year in the United Kingdom. Canada has had seven minority governments. But in Australia, it’s something new.