Rural Lawmakers Hold Key in Australian Election
With the country still waiting for the final results of the Saturday vote, reporters in the capital, Canberra, got a dose Wednesday of the self-described “force from the north” and the other independent legislators who could hold the balance of power in Australia’s first deadlocked Parliament in 70 years.
“If you live in a country town in Australia, every year you own a business, you know it’s going to get worse and worse,” Mr. Katter, a 65-year-old former stockman, said at the National Press Club on Wednesday. “Every year, you know your kids are going to leave because there are no jobs for them. Maybe a high school closes this year, maybe you lose your dentist next year.
“The people of rural Australia have put some of us here. They expect a return for having done that. As far as I’m concerned, they will get a return.”
Since the voting Saturday, the Australian news media have been scrambling to get a fix on Mr. Katter and the other once-obscure lawmakers who may be called upon to resolve the stalemate in the House of Representatives, where neither the incumbent center-left Labor Party nor a coalition of the conservative Liberal and rural-based National parties appear to have captured the 76 seats needed to form a majority government.
The final election result may not be known for another week. But Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her conservative rival, Tony Abbott, have already begun courting Mr. Katter, who has made no secret of how he intends to use his newfound power: to demand a “fairer go” for rural Australians.
All three independents hail from sparsely populated rural areas, where voters have long been at odds with the mainstream parties in Australia’s urban-focused political debate. Access to education, hospitals, jobs and telecommunications are key issues for voters in “the bush,” the vast stretches of scrubby grasslands that are home to about a quarter of Australia’s 22 million people.
The divide between urban and rural voters has long been a feature of Australian politics. The country’s vast expanses and relatively small population and tax base make it difficult for the government to provide basic services to many remote areas. But many country dwellers feel that their concerns are ignored by politicians scrambling for the bulk of votes in Australia’s heavily populated cities.
The three independents are all former members of the center-right National Party, the rural element of Mr. Abbott’s conservative coalition. But they have all bristled at suggestions that their former allegiance makes them more likely to support Mr. Abbott in a hung Parliament. While Mr. Katter does not endorse the Labor Party, he has described the conservatives as being “about as popular as a black snake in a sleeping bag,” with many farmers unhappy about the free trade deals enacted by the former prime minister, John Howard.
Tony Windsor, an independent representative from a northern part of New South Wales, told Sky News this week that he had rid himself of “two cancers” when he gave up smoking and split from the Nationals in the early 1990s. The 59-year-old former farmer and economist has been a bipartisan negotiator since he entered Parliament in 2001 and has said he is now more interested in forming a stable government that will last a full three-year term than in trading on particular favors for his electorate.
Rob Oakeshott, a 40-year-old from New South Wales, has been one of the loudest voices for parliamentary reform since he gained a platform as potential kingmaker in this election. He has said that he wants to reduce the stranglehold that Labor and the coalition hold on Parliament by making it easier for third parties and independents to introduce and debate legislation.
Mr. Oakeshott, who is widely reported to have allowed a refugee to stay in his home and has called for a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers, has also called on his fellow lawmakers to adopt a more collegial tone in Parliament, where petty insults and name-calling frequently dominate the debate. A young, charismatic leader with a personable style, Mr. Oakshott was once hailed as the next great hope of the National Party, but he left the party in 2002, saying that it had been co-opted by property developers and other special interests.
“Australia was completely underwhelmed by both major parties and by the way Parliament itself has been behaving,” Mr. Oakeshott said. “This is a moment where we can all do some things for all of us to get some better outcomes.”
After holding closed-door talks on Tuesday, the three emerged saying they would not necessarily vote as a bloc if called upon to break the Parliamentary stalemate. While they are all advocates for rural Australia, they differ on several key points, namely climate change, how to handle a recent influx of asylum seekers and the government’s proposed tax on mining profits.
They have said they will not engage in formal talks about the possible shape of a minority government until the official election result is finished. But on Wednesday, the three presented Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott with a list of seven demands, including a full briefing on the state of the economy, and an independent audit of how much the two opponents’ election promises would cost.
Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott could wind up having to deal with a fourth independent, Andrew Wilkie, whose election to a formerly safe Labor seat in the southern state of Tasmania appears likely but has not been confirmed. Another factor is Adam Bandt, a Greens party representative from Melbourne, who has said he would prefer to support a government led by Ms. Gillard but has not ruled out a compromise with the current opposition.
Meanwhile, Mr. Katter said he would continue to push the hardest bargain for his constituents on the banana plantations and in the coal mines of northern Queensland: “I’ve bought and sold cattle for a large portion of my life, and I like to think I can drive a deal.”
Bob Katter on the front page of the NYT. Who’d have thunk it?