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By Sally Holt
It was an election that began – and ended – in extraordinary circumstances.
In late June, following a series of plummeting polls, Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, challenged the nation’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for leadership of the Labor Party.
Knowing he lacked the numbers within his own party to thwart the challenge, Mr Rudd stepped down and Ms Gillard stepped up. Within weeks, Australia’s first female prime minister called a general election and on August 21, 2010 13 million Australians cast their votes in what was to be one of the closest elections ever.
A hung parliament then saw the nation teeter on the indecision of three rural independent Members of Parliament (MP). Would they throw the caretaker Labor Government a lifeline, or toss opposition leader Tony Abbott a chance at the top job? After 17 days of drawn-out negotiations the Labor Party finally secured the support of two independents, cobbling together the numbers needed for a minority government.
Despite the dramatic lead-up to the election, Dr Geoffrey Robinson, lecturer in politics with Deakin’s School of History, Heritage and Society, says the 2010 election was a relatively traditional and focused campaign.
"It was a grinding contest … rather like some that we’ve seen in the past. And for all the hype around new media opening up opportunities for public participation, it was a fairly traditional election in which both major parties strove to stay relentlessly on message," he says.
"Both leaders laid out their policies and contested for support. We didn’t see any of the dubious techniques, such as false leaflets, that were used in elections past. It was actually quite a clean election."
Australian federal politics has not seen a hung parliament and minority government since the early 1940s, and although minority governments can be notoriously unstable, Dr Robinson predicts a period of steadiness ahead: "The government itself will be perfectly stable, although underperforming ministers could come under more scrutiny, and legislation will face more difficulty getting through the House of Representatives. However this may actually encourage governments to be more thoughtful about the legislation that’s submitted in the first place.
He adds that, in the future, the roles of independent MPs may also come under greater scrutiny.
"In subsequent elections they will be under more pressure and there will be demands for them to give a pre-election undertaking on which party they will support, or what principles will guide their decisions," he says. "But it’s good for accountability."
With its delicate balance of alliances, the new government is likely to be trademarked by cooperation and consensus. And while its impact will only be determined by future generations, Dr Robinson says there are some early indicators.
"Historically, it probably won’t be viewed as a major turning point but there may be long‑term implications in setting a pattern for a Labor-Greens cooperation," he argues. "This may be a new coalition to rival the opposition on the right. It is possible that significant change will result from this election but it all depends on how the government – and its political allies – perform."