Australia’s August 21, 2010, Federal Parliamentary elections for the lower house (the House of Representatives) and upper house (Senate) led to a hung parliament, with the prospect that the next Government will be short-lived. However, the outgoing Government of Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard had already frozen activities on major Australian defense programs.
Sources in Canberra indicated that the Gillard Government had — as forecast by Defense & Foreign Affairs analysis in June 2010 — reduced the priority of defense, and there was a prospect that, if it continued in office, the Gillard Administration would substantially reduce the scope of defense as a Government priority. This was forecast in June 2010, when Ms Gillard mounted a political coup within the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) to overthrow incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose political fortunes were declining in the run-up to general elections.
The process is likely to throw the scheduling of, if not the financial commitment to, some major defense programs into doubt.
However, with the elections producing a hung parliament, the first in Australia since World War II, it was possible that even if the incumbent Prime Minister could assure the Governor-General of her ability (or belief) that she could produce a stable government capable of voting “supply” — that is, budget funding legislation — through both Houses of Parliament, her administration would not last long, and she would be forced to go back to the electorate with fresh elections.
It was also possible, however, that Ms Gillard would not be able to assure the Governor-General — the head-of-state — of her ability to form a new Government, in which case the Governor-General would ask the Leader of the Opposition, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, to try to form a Government.
Neither major party had a majority of seats in counting as of late August 22, 2010, and the balance of power was being held in the Lower House by a Green Party member and three independents, and in the Senate by nine or 10 Greens. The necessity to win the Greens or the independents will make minority government difficult for either major party (the ALP or the Liberal-National Party coalition).
The election saw some 14 ALP candidates voted out of their seats, reflecting a major backlash by voters against the Labor Government of Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard. Leftist ALP supporters in many instances moved their vote to the Greens. It was generally acknowledged that the Liberal-National team campaigned well from a position, only nine months earlier, of almost total collapse of that coalition.
It was unclear whether Defence Minister John Faulkner would continue in the post even if Ms Gillard remained Prime Minister, but, in any event, as one senior Defence official noted: “He’s lost his enthusiasm for it, anyway.” The ALP Government’s “elder statesman and key strategist”, Defence Minister Faulkner, 56, had, on July 7, 2010, before the election, announced that he would go to the backbenches after the election, and it is assumed that the electoral impasse has done nothing to alter that view. He had been Defence Minister only since June 2009.
Given the fragility of any Administration which Ms Gillard could put together in the event she is called by the Governor-General to form a Government, it is possible that Senator Faulkner could be asked to remain on the job until the next (imminent) elections are called.
Australia has many tens of billions of dollars in high-profile new procurement programs pending, including new ship, new Army ground force equipment, and new Air Force aircraft programs (including the F-35 JSF), pending.
Analysis from Gregory Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, in Perth.
(c) 2010 International Strategic Studies Association, www.StrategicStudies.org