On Aug. 21, after less than two months in power, Australia's first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, faced the voters. Australia had the option to keep her as leader and her left-of-center Labor Party in power. But instead, no decision was made, and the country has its first hung Parliament in 70 years, with neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party getting the requisite 76 seats to win the national election.
Now, as the rest of the votes are being counted, the authority to form a new coalition with either Labor or the center-right Liberal-National Coalition rests in the hands of four MPs, none of whom belongs to either major party. A decision is unlikely to be made for days maybe weeks but both Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition, referred to as the Coalition, are in the process of courting the one Green MP and three other independent seats. As of Monday afternoon, Gillard, whose party has 73 seats to the Coalition's 72, was open about pursuing the support of the Greens and the independents in her speech in Melbourne on Aug. 21. "I have had a good track record in the federal Parliament working positively and productively with the independents and the Greens in the Senate," Gillard said.
Tony Abbott, the conservative opposition leader, appeared in Sydney with his family by his side, and argued that the Labor Party had lost its legitimacy. "I say that a government that found it very hard to govern legitimately with 17 seats will never be able to govern in a minority," he told the cheering audience, referring to Labor's leadership problems despite its overwhelming majority in the former government. Abbott also added a jab at the manner in which Gillard came to power, by ousting Kevin Rudd, who at one point was one of Australia's most popular Prime Ministers. "The Australian people have said that whatever else might characterize our political culture, it should never be characterized by the knock on the door at midnight from the faceless men of the Labor factions," Abbott said.
A former trainee priest turned journalist turned politician, Abbott is a devout Catholic, characterized by his conservative stance on issues from abortion to immigration. In the past year he has managed to alienate female voters with awkward comments, like telling the Australian Women's Weekly in January that his advice to his three daughters is that virginity "is the greatest gift that you can give someone the ultimate gift of giving." However, he has run an effective campaign promising "to stop the boats" pandering to some of Australia's fear of the growing number of illegal maritime arrivals who are seeking asylum. Abbott is also known for showing off his remarkable fitness, frequently gracing newspaper front pages in his Speedos and competing in Ironman events throughout his political career.
Gillard, an unmarried atheist who has a live-in partner, is the polar opposite of Abbott, but the candidates are similar in their determination. Both came to power by overthrowing their predecessors; in Abbott's case, it was via an open campaign against the Emissions Trading Scheme that Malcolm Turnbull, the former leader of the Liberal Party, supported. Turnbull lost an open ballot in December 2009. Political analysts believe that Gillard's bloodless coup has cost her many votes, despite the fact that Rudd's approval ratings were already plummeting when she ousted him. "I think the Labor Party never really explained their change in leadership," says Norman Abjorensen, a political scientist at Australian National University. "They never gave a satisfactory answer for getting rid of Rudd."
In the end, after five weeks on the campaign trail, neither leader seemed to be able to win the faith of Australian voters. "There was very little clear communication for policy pathways of the future, or the direction of where each party would take the country," says Clement Macintyre, head of the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. Voting is mandatory in Australia with no-shows facing a fine, and Macintyre believes that this election has seen the highest proportion of spoiled ballot papers in Australian history. Spoiled ballots are discarded. "This is not a product of people making a mistake," says Macintyre. "I think that's a deliberate expression of some people that couldn't find a candidate they wanted to support."
One clear winner in these elections, however, has been the Australian Greens, with Adam Bandt of Melbourne winning the Greens' first seat in the House of Representatives. The Greens also hold the balance of power in the new Senate with at least eight, and potentially nine seats, pending final vote-counting. Since the Labor Party postponed its promised Emissions Trading Scheme in April, the Greens have provided a popular alternative for Australians concerned about climate change. The Greens also support same-sex marriage, which Gillard has come out against. For many years the Greens in federal Parliament have been able to criticize government policies implemented by both the Coalition and Labor, and not be in a position in which they are accountable for any of those measures, says Macintyre. "This time they are going to have to take responsibility."
There have been some other surprising results in this election, including the triumph of Australia's youngest member of Parliament, 20-year-old Wyatt Roy, of Longman, Queensland. Australia also looks close to electing its first indigenous MP, with Ken Wyatt, from the Liberal Party, looking likely to snatch the seat of Hasluck, Western Australia.
It's expected to take another two weeks to finish counting the votes, and even when that's done, victory will be relative. Whoever forms the next government will face a frustrating and demanding future, says Macintyre. It will be difficult for either side to establish a workable majority. And that means there will be another election before too long.