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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010

EDITORIAL

Vote of no confidence in Australia

There is little for Australian politicians to be proud of as they contemplate the results of last month's parliamentary elections. The vote was almost perfectly divided, resulting in the first hung Parliament since 1940. At this point, the two major parties are courting the four independents to see who can muster a majority. Yet even if a government is formed, it is likely to be unstable. Another election is likely to have to be held, yet even that may not resolve the deadlock. Prepare for muddle.

Australia went to the polls late last month after Prime Minister Julia Gillard called early elections in an attempt to seize the moment as her party enjoyed a brief surge in popularity. That was a mistake. Ms. Gillard had taken the prime minister's office after a backroom coup deposed her predecessor, Mr. Kevin Rudd. Mr. Rudd led Labor to power in November 2007 after 11 years in the opposition. He started off strong, but shifts on key policies — climate change and taxation on mineral exporters — pushed his popularity to dangerously low levels. Alarmed, party officials engineered his dismissal and replaced him with Ms. Gillard. While she enjoyed a brief honeymoon with voters, the backroom bloodletting proved more than most Australians could stomach. By the time they went to the polls, Labor's government looked short lived.

The ballot produced a virtual tie. Labor won 72 of the 150 seats in the Lower House, while the opposition Liberal National conservative coalition claimed 73. Of the remaining seats, one went to a Green party member, who is almost certain to join the Labor caucus. The remaining four parliamentarians are independent. One is a former Green party member whose inclinations would push him toward Labor. The other three were once members of the National party, but they have no love for their former allies and are likely to align with whichever party offers them the best deal.

Both parties are courting the independents. Ms. Gillard has a slight advantage since the incumbent has the right to first try to form a government but she is weakened. Not only has her image been darkened by the party coup, but she has not had an impressive performance since taking office. She did not disavow Mr. Rudd's policies — and was said to have supported them while serving as his deputy — and tacked to the right on issues such as immigration, which made her look like an opportunist. The poll results are damning: Hers is the first first-term Australian government since the Depression to lose at the polls.

The head of the opposition, Mr. Tony Abbott, looks a little better but only just. He is a conservative from the right who was thought to be unelectable a few years ago. He is more comfortable campaigning on his opponent's mistakes. As Australia grapples with difficult policy questions, the public demands more than opposition to government policies. His populism is equally hard for many Australians to swallow.

The independents have demanded that the two parties provide them with cost estimates of their campaign proposals. After first refusing — and prompting speculation that the conservative party did not have firm ideas — Mr. Abbott gave in, although the information is not to be shared with Labor.

Whoever prevails in the negotiations with the independents will have a slim margin and will be under constant pressure from the opposition. Virtually every piece of legislation will require bargaining among the coalition and it may be difficult to hold together given the diversity of views it encompasses. Fortunately, the independents have indicated that they all want a stable government that will serve a complete three-year term. Whether that expectation will last is another question. Oddsmakers are betting on another election next year.

In the interim, the country is likely to drift. Politics should be intense and intensely local. This will compound the inward-looking focus that followed Mr. Rudd's departure. Of course, Australia will maintain its ties to the region and key allies — credit energetic foreign, trade and defense ministries — but some scaling back is inevitable. Little is heard of Mr. Rudd's idea of an Asia-Pacific Community since he left office.

The growing role of the Green party is not a cause for concern but it must be noted. The Greens won more than 11 percent of the popular vote — when combined with Labor, the left has a small advantage in the overall popular vote despite the split in seats won — and have emerged as a political force to be reckoned with. The party is expected to hold the balance of power in the Upper House from July 1 next year. The party's priority is climate change legislation but it has foreign policy preferences as well. It wants Australia to leave Afghanistan, which threatens to create some tensions with the United States as it tries to stabilize that country.

There is little indication that ties with Japan will suffer as a result of the deadlock. Even if our relationship is not a priority for either a Labor or a National government, sufficient momentum has been created for bureaucrats to keep things moving forward in the absence of top-level political attention. It is unlikely that other issues will be so well served by the deadlock in Canberra.



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