“Let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in.” So said Julia Gillard upon forming Australia’s first minority federal government in 70 years. It is a well chosen metaphor which highlights the positive aspect of the circumstances in which the nation now finds itself. It implies that the sunshine of political goodwill and improved parliamentary processes can now flood into our lives through the open window of greater consultation and collaboration in government. But even if today is a bright bright sunshiny day, it doesn’t mean that all of the dark clouds have disappeared from the sky. (Apologies to Johnny Nash.)
While some have said that Julia Gillard will now become the first woman to have been elected by the people to be Prime Minister, I’m not sure that can really be said. Her claim to that position can only be sustained with the support of members who were elected by people who did not vote for Labor. The truth is that in a majority of electorates, 78 of them, the people voted against Labor. The independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakshott, was the last of the cross-bench members to declare his intentions, but not before spending an inordinate amount of time explaining that no one party had any claim to anything resembling a mandate.
Mr. Oakeshott, despite overstaying his welcome at the microphone, is absolutely right. No party can claim a mandate, or a clear victory from this election. He and his independent colleagues are also right that this period of minority government offers a tremendous opportunity for reform to the parliamentary process, but more importantly to the political process. It is an opportunity for the process to become more collaborative and less combative. It is an opportunity for those who have previously felt disenfranchised, especially in regional areas, to have their voices heard.
At the same time, there is no guarantee that it will turn out that way. It is still possible that collaboration and good will could evaporate in profound differences of policy. It is still possible that parliament could become bogged down in unresolved debate and legislation could be deadlocked. It is still possible that some might actively work against the smooth functioning of the delicately balanced parliament in order to destabilise the government and bring on an early election. While Julia Gillard’s optimistic reference to the sunshine is a very strong and appealing image, I suspect that not all our politicians will subscribe to that view.
Even if the government manages to run a full three year term, which is by no means certain, those dark clouds will never be far away.