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Australia’s post-election nightmare ends

With independent support, Labor Party forms country’s first minority gov’t since WW II

Australian independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott speaks Tuesday as fellow independent Tony Windsor listens during a press conference in Canberra. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Labor Party gained the ability to form a government after the two independent lawmakers joined her coalition. (Associated Press)Australian independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott speaks Tuesday as fellow independent Tony Windsor listens during a press conference in Canberra. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor Party gained the ability to form a government after the two independent lawmakers joined her coalition. (Associated Press)
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Australians woke up Wednesday from an 18-day political nightmare after two independent lawmakers threw their support behind Prime Minister Julia Gillard, giving her Labor Party the parliamentary votes necessary to form the country's first minority government since World War II.

Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, who both represent rural districts, attributed their decision to Labor's climate-change efforts and its promise to fund education and broadband access outside of urban centers.

"Labor is prepared to govern," a jubilant Miss Gillard said following the lawmakers' nationally televised announcement. "Ours will be a government with just one purpose, and that's to serve the Australian people."

The lawmakers' action gave Labor the 76-vote majority needed to form a government.

Though Miss Gillard declared that "Labor is prepared to deliver, stable, effective and secure government for the next three years," it remains far from certain that her government — vulnerable to a single defector — will last that long.

"If I were to guess, I'd say that there will be an election sooner rather than later," said Alan Tidwell, director of Georgetown's Center for Australia and New Zealand Studies (CANZ). "Right now the independents have made promises of supporting the government in confidence and supply [finance] votes. Those agreements can always be broken down the track. Given the tenuousness of the situation, I think it unlikely that everybody will see eye-to-eye for the next three years."

"This is uncharted territory," said Patricia O'Brien, also a CANZ professor. "Julia Gillard now has to appease people who really span the political spectrum, from the Greens … to the two independents who have conservative electorates. Nobody really knows whether her government is going to be able to get anything done."

Miss Gillard's conservative Liberal Party challenger, Tony Abbott, said Tuesday he has no intention of stepping down as opposition leader despite the setback.

"The Coalition won more votes and more seats than our opponents," Mr. Abbott said in his concession. "But, sadly, we did not get the opportunity to form a government."

The Coalition — a right-wing alliance between the Liberal and National parties — won 44 percent of the vote in the Aug. 21 election, 6 percentage points more than Labor received.

However, that translated into only 73 seats in the lower house of Parliament — one more than Labor's total but three shy of a governing majority, putting Mr. Abbott in a bidding war with Miss Gillard for the support of four independent lawmakers. The Green Party's lone representative sided with Labor, as widely expected.

Early polls in this year's five-week campaign had given Labor a commanding lead over the Coalition, but the opposition leader slowly narrowed the gap.

Miss Gillard came to power unexpectedly in June, when she won a intraparty leadership vote over Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Mr. Rudd, who had returned Labor to power in a 2007 landslide over four-term incumbent John Howard, initially enjoyed high approval ratings but stumbled earlier this year when he abandoned a popular cap-and-trade initiative and proposed a far-less-popular tax on the mining industry.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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