Australia’s ‘Houdini’ PM Facing High-Wire Act


Julia Gillard pulled off the “greatest escape” since Houdini by clinging on to power as Australian prime minister, but faces a political high-wire act to keep her shaky coalition intact, analysts said.

Gillard snatched the leadership from elected PM Kevin Rudd just 10 weeks ago and failed to win an outright majority at August 21 polls, ultimately relying on an unlikely quartet of minority MPs to get over the line.

Two conservative rural independents joined a lawmaker from the Greens environmental party and an ex-Iraq war whistle-blower to give Gillard the one-seat majority she needed to rule.

“I think Julia Gillard is the greatest escape artist since Houdini,” said Monash University political scientist Nick Economou.

“She obviously has excellent negotiating skills and that has allowed her to hang onto the prime ministership, even though she suffered quite a big loss of support and loss of seats at the election. She’s extremely lucky.”

But the “kingmakers” came at a cost – US$9 billion in promises for rural electorates alone – and Gillard will have to rely on their support to pass any legislation, explained Peter van Onselen.

“I think it’s going to be inherently unstable,” van Onselen, a government expert from Edith Cowan University, said.

“It’ll be delicate and it’ll require the government to take an issue-by-issue approach to its legislation … (rather) than robust policy development.”

The eclectic mix of progressive and conservative views in her coalition will make it nearly impossible for Gillard to achieve consensus on flagship issues such as a tax on mining profits or imposing a levy on carbon emissions.

“I think balancing the budget’s going to be difficult because the government’s got a whole heap of additional spending that it’s got to do now (on rural promises),” said van Onselen.

“But there’s question marks now about whether the mining tax will get through, and it’s hard to see how it’s going to manage to restore the budget to balance at the same time as deliver all its spending commitments.”

Gillard will also be faced with an uncommonly strong and unified opposition that has “had a real whiff of government” after falling just short of its own majority, said Flinders University expert Haydon Manning.

“It only takes a big issue – like, say, the carbon tax – to see the independents wilt,” Manning said.

“Suddenly a big issue for the government doesn’t get through the (lower) house, the Greens are barking wildly about it and eyes are darting in all directions, and then you just don’t know whether a new election’s around the corner.”

It would take the death or resignation of just one MP from the ruling Labor party to trigger another election, meaning Gillard’s government was “massively going to be under the microscope and is on notice”, van Onselen said.

“But I think that can be a potential good thing for this government, because it’s a government that was heavily criticised for over-promising and under-delivering in its first term,” he said.

Most experts agreed that Gillard’s rule could last a full three-year term and said the Welsh-born former lawyer was best placed of anyone in the current parliament to make it happen.

“She has a new modus operandi to work with which you suspect just might fit her personality type and character,” Manning said.

“From the ashes of defeat she might really make something of this.”

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