Amid all the political noise out of Canberra last week, one comment had a piercing clarity. Darren Chester, the Nationals MP for Gippsland, said belief that rural independent Rob Oakeshott would swap sides and bring down the Labor government was a “fairytale” and “would never happen”. Chester’s position is realistic.
It was always most unlikely that either Oakeshott or his rural independent colleague Tony Windsor would support a Coalition government. When Abbott became Opposition Leader in December 2009, Oakeshott told Port Macquarie News that Abbott’s “natural starting point is of concern for Australian politics where no separation of church and state exists in principle”.
This was Oakeshott prolix-speak for saying that Abbott cannot be trusted because he is a conservative Catholic. Once upon a time, such a comment would be described (correctly) as an example of sectarianism. Last week Oakeshott whinged that the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, was acting immaturely by campaigning for the Coalition in his seat of Lyne. The fact is, Oakeshott is locked into Labor and should expect no less.
Windsor seems untroubled by the Opposition Leader’s religion but he exhibits a visceral dislike for the National Party in the eastern states. At least he does not cry foul when the National Party campaigns in his seat of New England.
Appearing on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press program, the Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown, declared that “in the wake of the election” his party was “successful in striking a compact with Labor”. The Greens invariably get soft interviews. So it was no surprise when left-of-centre-interviewer Paul Bongiorno let this comment go unchallenged. But the fact is Adam Bandt, who won Melbourne for the Greens, committed himself to support Labor before the election was held.
This leaves independent Andrew Wilkie. Last week the Denison MP attracted media attention after Katharine Murphy reported in The Age that Wilkie would withdraw his support for Labor and “will bring down the government plain and simple” if he does not get his way on altering gambling laws.
But even if Wilkie crossed the floor and swore allegiance to the Coalition, Labor could still survive if it convinced independent MP Bob Katter or West Australian National MP Tony Crook or a disaffected Liberal such as Peter Slipper to vote against a no-confidence motion and thus avoid an early election.
So it looks like the Labor government will last until the next election, scheduled for spring 2013. And it looks like Julia Gillard will lead Labor to the election – despite the talk of Greg Combet and Bill Shorten replacing her before then.
It’s much the same with the opposition. Despite media talk about the leadership prospects of Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, it is unlikely that Abbott will lose the Liberal Party leadership before the election. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s statement last week committing Labor to a carbon tax, to be replaced in time by an emissions trading scheme, is likely to enhance Abbott’s position.
Abbott’s opposition to a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme in Australia – before such a policy is embraced by the US, Canada, China or India – enjoys clear majority support in the Liberal Party room. Moreover, there is virtually no support among the Nationals for a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. Turnbull, on the other hand, supports immediate action on climate change. Hockey might be closer to Turnbull than Abbott on this issue. However, he believes that he should be the next Liberal leader after Abbott.
So it is likely that the next 2 years will be a long political grind. Gillard’s political longevity will turn on her ability to get a carbon tax through both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s political longevity will depend on his ability to hold the opposition together and to link Labor with the Greens’ left agenda on economic and social issues.
The Greens’ policies are directed at the interests of inner-city middle-class radicals. However, as Labor understands, the 2013 election will be decided in outer suburbs and regional centres. That’s why, despite Oakeshott’s evident distress, the Coalition is going to attempt to win Lyne by linking him with Labor and the Greens. It’s shaping up as a political war of attrition.