Labor's new governing coalition has majority of one

Australia's prime minister Julia Gillard rewards independents' support with rural investment.

CANBERRA // The prime minister, Julia Gillard, will lead Australia's first minority government in 67 years after two independent legislators threw their support behind her centre-left Labor Party yesterday, ending two weeks of uncertainty left by national elections that ended on a knife-edge. Australia's first woman to be prime minister promised that her government will be stable over the next three years, although the defection of a single MP would bring down the Labor administration.

"Labor is prepared to deliver stable, effective and secure government for the next three years," she told reporters. The independents' support means Ms Gillard can continue with her plans to introduce a 30 per cent tax on iron ore and coal miners' burgeoning profits and make Australia's biggest polluters pay for carbon gas emissions. Labor gained the ability to form a government for a second term after two independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, joined her coalition more than two weeks after elections failed to deliver a clear winner for the first time since 1940.

Yesterday's decision by Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott gave Ms Gillard's party control of 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives and avoided the need for another round of polls. Ms Gillard has rewarded the two rural-based legislators by promising A$10 billion (Dh33.4bn) in new investment for rural schools and hospitals. She also announced that she had offered Mr Oakeshott a cabinet post, which he had yet to accept. Mr Windsor had said he did not want such a job in the government.

Ms Gillard also said she would keep her promise to make her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, a senior cabinet minister. Party power brokers dumped Mr Rudd for Mr Gillard in an internal mutiny in June in a bid to improve Labor's standing in opinion polls. Rudd loyalists were suspected to be behind a series of damaging leaks to the media against Ms Gillard during her election campaign. Labor lost 11 seats in the election, many of them in Mr Rudd's home state of Queensland.

Bob Katter, an independent who sided with the conservative Liberal Party of the opposition leader Tony Abbott, said yesterday that he would have supported Labor if Mr Rudd were still prime minister. Ms Gillard said voters sent her a message by almost making her government the first to lose power after a single term since 1931. "What they are asking us to do is not to become waylaid in partisan bickering but to build for the future," she said.

Mr Abbott's coalition won 73 seats and with Mr Katter's support commanded 74 seats. Mr Abbott said yesterday that he was disappointed by the result and said the government should be brought down if it proves to be incompetent. The August 21 elections were the first since 1940 to fail to deliver a clear winner. That parliament initially chose a conservative minority government, which was brought down when two independents switched their allegiances to Labor.

Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott, who have both championed better communications infrastructure for rural areas, said Labor's plan to introduce a $43bn high-speed optical fibre national broadband network was a major factor in their decision. "What this is, is a hard decision," Mr Oakeshott told reporters in announcing his decision. "There's no question about that. And on my end, it has been an absolute line-ball, points decision, judgement call, six of one, half dozen of the other. This could not get any closer."

Mr Windsor said he believed that Ms Gillard was more likely than Mr Abbott to work constructively with the independents and govern for a full three-year term rather than call an early election. During intense negotiations with the independents, both Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott had promised that, if they could form a minority government, they would not later call an early election in the hope of winning an outright majority.

Labor won only 72 seats but has enlisted the support of a lawmaker from the Greens Party plus three independents. Liberal Party legislators argue that the Greens' influence will make the Labor minority government Australia's most left-wing government in years.
* Associated Press