One is a whip-cracking, larrikin cowboy, another a surfer with a social conscience, the third a hard-nosed farmer. Throw in a defence department whistleblower, add a tyro Greens MP for good measure and there you have the cast of characters who will decide the shape of Australia’s new government.
While the acting prime minister, Julia Gillard, and her conservative nemesis, Tony Abbott, begin the vexed task of trying to pull together a workable minority government, the spotlight has narrowed to the blokes from the bush who hold the keys to the Aussie prime ministerial residence, known affectionately as The Lodge.
This gang of three – Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – are veteran anti-politicians, mavericks with big electoral majorities who have entrenched their support by snubbing the big parties. They are truly independent independents, ferocious about the political mainstream’s failure to deliver for their rural constituencies and impatient for a time when they could join forces to exert some real political muscle.
All three, in fact, hail from the National party, the rural arm of the Australian conservatives. A done deal for the aspiring rightwing PM, Abbott? Not a chance.
Hatred of their political alma maters is their only real common bond – and the feeling is mutual. Katter, whose electorate covers almost one third of the enormous state of Queensland, dumped the National party on the eve of the 2001 election, launching a scathing attack on economic rationalism and the conservative government’s failure to support the tobacco farmers of his constituency. (His re-election advertisement during this campaign became something of a YouTube hit – a mini western starring the MP as “the force from the north”.)
Windsor, too, began his career as a Nationals candidate but abandoned the party pre poll, winning a seat in State parliament where he held a massive majority for a decade and the balance of power for a controversial term. He also switched to the national stage by wresting a key blue-ribbon seat from his former conservative colleagues.
On election night last Saturday, Windsor, never one to mince words, dismissed a National party MP as a “fool” on live television. Katter, too, struck terror into the hearts of the conservatives outlining his antipathy for the Nationals’ leader, Warren Truss in public and forcing Abbott to ban the aspiring deputy PM from negotiations with the kingmakers.
Rob Oakeshott is the youngest of the three renegades. At 40, he is a fit and passionate surf kayaker and triathlete – and, probably, the least problematic character for both parties. Something of a David Cameron-style Tory, economically dry but with a strong commitment to social issues, he has shown initial signs of a gentler pragmatism.
Managing the trio’s individual – and collective – demands will be difficult enough without the other revolution that swept through the Senate last Saturday. Disappointment with both parties’ failure to address the deadlock over climate change and a proposed carbon emissions tax saw a massive increase in electoral support for the Greens – so big that the environmental movement, for the first time, will now hold the balance of power in the upper house, Australia’s influential house of review.
Gillard and Abbott are right to hold their breath in the vain hope that the final count will deliver the magic 76 seats needed to form a majority government outright. The former faces becoming the nation’s first female PM – held to account by three conservative, veteran male MPs – while the latter risks going down in history as the conservative prime minister who described global warming as “crap”, and had to stare down a Senate in the hands of the Greens.
The irony is breathtaking. And of course, quite delicious.
Paola Totaro, the London-based Europe correspondent for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.