CANBERRA Australian politics remains in deadlock more than a week after the August 21 elections as both major parties scramble to form a government in the country's first hung parliament since World War Two.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Labor party is likely to end up with 72 of parliament's 150 seats and opposition leader Tony Abbott's conservatives with 73. To secure the minimum 76 needed to govern, they need support from among a motley handful of MPs: three rural independents, one urban independent and a Green.
The election outcome now rests on a series of meetings between the independents and the major parties, which began in earnest on Monday.
Here are some of the possible outcomes:
GILLARD FORMS DEAL WITH INDEPENDENTS
PROBABILITY: Slightly better than even chance
While Gillard is likely to end up with one less seat than Abbott, she is much more likely to win support of urban independent Andrew Wilkie, whose political wish-list is more aligned to Labor policies than those of Abbott. The Green MP has also publicly said he would prefer Labor remain in office. That could give Gillard 74 votes, putting her in a strong position to then deal with the remaining rural-based independents.
Gillard would have a strong chance of forging a deal with two of the remaining three independents: Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Both favor Labor policies on broadband and climate, and both have given broad support for the government's proposed mining tax, although they may seek refinements.
The third rural independent, Bob Katter, is considered a maverick MP. He is a former National Party lawmaker but has no love for his old party. He opposes the mining tax and any move to put a price on carbon pollution. He would be more likely to side with the conservative opposition.
But all independents say they want a stable government for the coming three years. Gillard could argue that if all independents sided with her, she could control 77 seats, giving the best chance of stability in parliament, although 76 seats would be more realistic. Gillard would also be seen as working better with the upper house, the Senate, where the Greens will hold the balance of power from July 2011.
ABBOTT FORMS GOVERNMENT WITH INDEPENDENTS
PROBABILITY: Slightly less than even chance
Abbott is within striking distance of forming government and he could convince the three rural-based independents to take his side. But he will not win support from the sole Green MP, and he is unlikely to give in to any of the requests from Wilkie, whose electorate takes in the southern city of Hobart. That means he would control 76 seats at best in the new parliament.
However, Abbott has already argued that he has a mandate to rule because the conservatives won most of the primary votes in the August 21 election. He can also assure the independents that his cabinet will include regional National Party lawmakers, unlike Labor which is city-centric.
POLITICAL DEADLOCK, NEW ELECTION NEEDED
PROBABILITY: Growing possibility.
Politicians from the main parties, and the independents, are talking up their hope of forging a stable government. That would make a quick election less likely. There is also no reason to believe a fresh vote would deliver a different result. The independents would be keen to avoid a new election to maximize their role as kingmakers at the center of government decision-making. But the next opposition will exert maximum political pressure on the new government, which will need to negotiate laws with both the independents in the lower house and the Greens in the Senate. That could lead to deadlocks in parliament, and could force a new government to call a fresh election as early as mid-2011 to seek a stronger mandate.
(Editing by John Chalmers)