Headache of government beats not governing at all
Update 2pm: Julia Gillard has named her new ministerial team. It includes Kevin Rudd as PM, Stephen Smith in Defence and Simon Crean heading a new regional affairs ministry. You can read full details here.
Australians finally know when Parliament will sit, September 28, but few have any idea what will happen when it does.
Visually, it will be interesting having both sides so evenly matched on numbers in the House of Representatives. Where will the independents sit - on the cross benches yes, but where exactly? On the Government side or on the Opposition side? It is one of many questions.
Julia Gillard may have emerged victorious from our closest ever election, but beyond that stretches yet more uncertainty. A new Cabinet will be named as early as today, but Ms Gillard knows that is the easy bit. Well, kind of.
The truth is, she has very limited flexibility. She will continue with Kevin Rudd’s practice of choosing the ministry rather than allowing the factions to carve up the spoils via farcical Caucus elections.
But her authority is considerably less than generally appreciated. Normally a PM, especially after an election, can lean on one or two people to stand down and make way for new blood. Not now. Labor’s whole operation rests on a one seat majority. This means it would take just one MP to decide his or her career had peaked to end the Government. A by-election in just about any Labor seat you could name would be a circus because the government itself would potentially turn on it. Such conditions would be a walk-up start for an independent. This is just one of the many implications of the new reality.
It is all a mtter of perspective. Minority government is either a ``new paradigm’’ heralding consultative multi-interest governance, or it is a recipe for instability and reform gridlock. To its detractors, it’s a contradiction in terms, a democratic cul de saq from which the only way out is the way we came in. Advocates - most of whom incidentally are flush with newly acquired power - sunnily maintain that Julia Gillard will need to build consensus for legislation and that this process itself will lead to higher quality decision making.
The starting point maths is simple enough. Labor finished with 72 seats out of the 150 member House of Representatives. To that it was able to lock in the votes of four more MPs: the new lower house Greens member, Adam Bandt, the new Hobart based independent, Andrew Wilkie, and two of three ex-Nationals country independents, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. All have guaranteed to support Ms Gillard as PM in any attempt by the Opposition to unseat her via motions of no-confidence (unless there is a genuine case such as major maladministration). They have also vowed to maintain Labor’s one seat majority to pass bills appropriating money for the normal functioning of government, known as supply bills. These are the bare minimum requirements of a government under our Westminster system.
So far, so good. But this is where the 76 vote guarantee ends. For all other legislation over and above these basics, including things like the mining tax which is not a supply bill, literally anything could happen.
This week, Bob Brown, cock-a-hoop at the doubling of his party room from five to ten (nine senators plus Mr Bandt) flagged supporting the Opposition in any of its legislative ideas if the Greens wish. Already, one issue, Mr Abbott’s more generous but super-expensive paid parental leave scheme, has been nominated. Labor’s more modest taxpayer funded version has been legislated but needs tweaking after being sweetened further in the election campaign. It is theoretically possible for the Opposition, the Greens and a couple of independents to club together in the Reps and pass Mr Abbott’s scheme. In that circumstance, the scheme would clear the Senate easily creating an humiliating debacle for what would then be a Government in name only.
There are numerous other election commitments which will require legislation - each must run the gauntlet of a multi-interest legislature where individual MPs will have crucial sway and where the lure of 15 minutes of fame will be hard to resist.
Tony Abbott magnanimously gave Ms Gillard his validation in his concession speech on Tuesday saying: ``even a government which has scraped home by the skin of its teeth ... is still in its own way a triumph of democracy’‘. But if this was the new paradigm, a kinder gentler polity as Mr Abbott himself had advocated, it was fleeting indeed.
Since then, his tone has changed markedly and a clear Opposition theme is now apparent. Labor, we are being constantly reminded, got fewer first preference votes, the smaller share of the second preference carve up, and won fewer seats. Its legitimacy is non-existent.
The strategy is plainly designed to pressure the independents - to split them away from the Government by daily shaking their confidence in being too closely associated with Labor. The campaign to cast Mr Oakeshott in recent days as a Labor stooge has been ferocious.
This is the real paradigm. And it is the one in which Julia Gillard will be pushing highly contested legislation for: a Minerals Resource Rent Tax, due to raise $10.5 billion in its first two years, and on which much of the new spending is based; a cut to company tax from 30 cents in the dollar to 29 cents; a new emissions trading scheme including a price on carbon; offshore processing of asylum seekers; health reforms worth more than $7 billion; the $43 billion National Broadband Network; $742 Redcliffe rail line in Brisbane; $800 million regional infrastructure funding; new welfare to work measures to force the jobless to attend Centrelink meetings; and controversial water buybacks to save the lower Murray Darling Basin.
The first order of business of course is the new frontbench. That will be unveiled shortly. Kevin Rudd has firmed as the choice for Foreign Affairs. That could see Stephen Smith moved to Defence. Greg Combet is tipped to take Climate Change, while Penny Wong would become Attorney General. Chris Bowen would get Mr Tanner’s old Finance port folio.
Despite the risk of being seen to reward a key anti-Rudd plotter, Bill Shorten is a likely promotion. So too SA’s Mark Butler who has impressed as a Parliamentary Secretary for Health. But plenty of others are knocking on the door.
It’s just one of the many new headaches for Ms Gillard. But then, she wouldn’t want the alternative, would she?
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