The WSJ Asia has a hard look at the re-elected Gillard government.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has described her government’s one-vote majority as “a new environment that’s going to require cooperation, collaboration, negotiation.” Too bad she’s acting as if she has no opposition at all.
Barely a week into the new parliament, the Labor-led minority government has already broken campaign promises on climate change, made overtures to euthanasia advocates and agreed to a major debate regarding Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. None of these issues benefit Labor, which nearly lost the election by moving too far from the political center.
Ms. Gillard herself acknowledged as much last month when she cobbled together the coalition that relies on the Green Party and rural independents. “I’ve learned some lessons and the Australian government has learned some lessons,” she said. She explicitly promised not to float a carbon tax, pledged to stick to the tax compromises she personally forged with the big miners and promised fiscal prudence.
But the nature of the coalition already seems to be affecting Labor’s policy choices. As Climate Change Minister Greg Combet let slip recently on national television, Labor is in a “different position than what we may have anticipated prior to the election.” In other words, Labor’s election promises may have to give way to the demands of its junior partners. Opposition leader Tony Abbott calls such tactics “deceitful,” and it’s hard to disagree.
So with one seat in the House of Representatives and nine seats secured in the Senate, Bob Brown’s fringe Green Party has suddenly found itself at the center of power. Mr. Brown promised last month to legislate “in the national interest.” But given his party’s platform — which includes ditching the U.S. security alliance and encouraging the United Nations to investigate Australia for “human-rights violations” — many Australians will wonder about his definition of national interest.
The Greens’ influence also puts Labor in a political bind. Ms. Gillard has to satisfy her coalition partners — at least rhetorically — while sidelining their legislative priorities. On some issues, like the war in Afghanistan, that means allowing the Greens to let off steam in a parliamentary debate, while reassuring troops on the ground Sunday that the debate is a “great opportunity to tell the Australian people what you are achieving here.”
But on bigger economic issues such as tax and spending, Ms. Gillard may find it harder to hew to the center. So far, the Greens are playing nice on the mining tax, but climate change is one of their top legislative priorities and they won’t be patient forever. In the meantime, given the last Labor government’s agenda, Australians might find they like this policy stasis, whatever the prime minister calls it.