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Friday, Sept. 24, 2010


Balancing act Down Under

Australia's incumbent prime minister, Ms. Julia Gillard, has avoided humiliation by cobbling together a coalition government. Narrowly avoiding defeat only months after taking office, she presides over the first minority government in Australia in 70 years. It promises to be a difficult balancing act, as she tries to keep happy the four independents who give her a majority in Parliament.

Ms. Gillard called an election weeks after a backroom coup deposed Mr. Kevin Rudd as prime minister. While Mr. Rudd had alienated many voters, the maneuvering that removed him was even more troubling. Ms. Gillard's inability to differentiate herself from Mr. Rudd on key policies compounded her difficulties. The election produced a split Parliament between the ruling Labour Party and the Liberal-National opposition. Four independent politicians held the balance of power and they ultimately sided with Labour.

The result is a knife-edge Parliament that will be prone to bickering and grandstanding. The independents have said they want to see the current Parliament go a full term; it will be interesting to see if they keep that pledge.

Few changes are expected in policy, apart from a large rural infrastructure investment program that won over two of the independents. The "super profits tax" on mining companies, which had contributed to Mr. Rudd's demise, still looks set to proceed, though moderated, and there has been no decision on what to do about the emissions trading scheme that the government withdrew earlier this year. With the Greens set to hold the balance of power in the next Upper House, government inaction will rob it of important allies in Parliament.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the election was the decision to name Mr. Rudd foreign minister. He was given the post to use his expertise, to keep him happy and his supporters in line during the election. The question is whether he will overshadow Ms. Gillard on the international stage. That could create a division of labor in government, with the prime minister handling domestic affairs. That is a suboptimal solution, but it may be the best Ms. Gillard can hope given the head count in Parliament.

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