While we are clearly heading for a hung paarliament now, the exact nature of this hung parliament depend a great deal on the exact make-up of the Parliament.
It is now clear that we will see sitting rural independent MPs Rob Oakeshott, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor win re-election. In addition, Adam Bandt has won the seat of Melbourne for the Greens, and the WA Nationals’ Tony Crook has won the seat of O’Connor, and has not agreed to sit with the Coalition. In addition, it is possible that former Green Andrew Wilkie will win the seat of Denison as an independent.
As it stands, the Coalition holds 72 seats (excluding O’Connor), and the ALP also holds 72 seats. The closest seat at the moment is the Perth seat of Hasluck, where the Liberal Party is leading by less than 400 votes.
On my count, if the ALP reaches 73 seats (or 74 if they win Denison), then it becomes almost impossible for Tony Abbott to form a government. Greens MP Adam Bandt has already said he will support the ALP, although that doesn’t mean that he will give up that vote without any concessions. In addition, you would have to tip Wilkie to support the ALP, although it would be more in his interest to leave open the option of doing otherwise. If Wilkie and Bandt support the ALP, it becomes impossible for Abbott to find 76 votes.
73 is also the magic number because it allows Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor to swing as a block behind one party or the other, leaving Bandt and Wilkie out in the cold (although a Labor minority government would also likely want a positive relationship with Bandt and Wilkie, especially considering that the Greens also have a solid lock on the Senate balance of power, and you cannot separate any agreement with Bandt for his support in the House of Representatives from Labor-Greens relationship in the Senate.
While you can’t count on Tony Crook to fall in line with the Coalition consistently, I can’t see him supporting the ALP. The relationship between the Liberal Party and the WA Nationals is more like the relationship between the ALP and the Greens – parties on the same side of the political divide, but with deep differences and conflict. I tend to think Crook will end up balancing out Bandt – a thorn in the Liberal Party’s side, but someone who will end up going his way. If Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor were to do a deal with the Coalition, it would likely also be able to cover Crook, who shares some common ground with the east coast independents.
Bearing all that in mind, to form a stable government with the three rural independents, the ALP needs to win 73 seats, and the Coalition needs to win 72 seats plus Tony Crook in O’Connor.
The votes of Wilkie and Bandt only come into play if a major party manages to break apart the group of three rural independents, or if the rural independents opt to go with the smaller of the two parties. If the ALP wins only 72 seats, it is plausible that the government could be supported by the rural independents and Bandt and Wilkie, but it would be much harder to construct.
Of course, the numbers aren’t the only factor which will determine which way the rural independents jump. Despite their conservatism and rural electorates, the three independents are former Nationals for a reason. They have all had falling-outs with their former parties, and have all been deeply critical of the close Nationals relationship with the Liberal Party. Their main political opposition is the Nationals, and they have had often bitter relationships. Just last night on the 7:30 Report, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor attacked the Nationals, and personally were critical of Nationals leaders Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce.
The ALP has been very effective at fostering relationships with independents, including Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The rural independents in the NSW state parliament, which included Oakeshott until 2008, have a close relationship with the ALP. Fellow independent Richard Torbay was appointed Speaker after the 2007 state election, despite the ALP winning a comfortable majority.
Windsor and Oakeshott have also been strong in pushing climate change legislation, and have worked with Greens MPs on issues such as the impact of coal mining on farming communities. Despite a large gulf between seats like Melbourne and New England, there is immense value in the rural independents having a close relationship with the Greens. While Bandt’s single vote may not be the key vote in the House of Representatives, the Greens balance of power in the Senate could make or break a government.
The ALP has already raised the prospect of a Liberal government in conflict with the Greens in the Senate as an argument for a Labor minority government. While the ALP has not always been able to get along with the Greens over the last term, the Greens have shown a willingness to compromise and on many issues the ALP has been able to work with them. While the Greens would surely try to work with an Abbott government to achieve results, there would be a huge gulf on many issues. It is also difficult for the Greens, particularly for big-state Senators like Richard di Natale and Lee Rhiannon and inner-city MP Adam Bandt, to compromise on political issues while maintaining the support of their base.
Arguments of legitimacy have also begun to be raised. Julia Gillard has pointed out that the ALP won a slight majority of the two-party preferred vote, indicating that a majority (although not a large one) prefer Labor to the Coalition. Tony Abbott has responded by arguing that the Coalition’s higher primary vote gives them more legitimacy to govern, and that the hung parliament is an indictment of the Rudd/Gillard government. Abbott’s argument conveniently ignores the 11.4% of voters who voted Greens, over 80% of whom preferenced the ALP.
While both parties make arguments as to why it is more legitimate for them to form government, it is unlikely to make a big difference in determining who forms government, although whoever loses is bound to argue strongly that whatever deal is done is illegitimate, anti-democratic, and involves all parties to the deal selling out.