By James Grubel
CANBERRA, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Australia’s tiny Greens party threw its support behind Labor’s drive to oust Prime Minister John Howard’s conservatives in November elections and promised not to block a new government’s agenda in the upper house.
Australians will vote at national elections on November 24, with polls pointing to a solid victory for the centre-left Labor Party over Howard, whose conservative government has been in power for 11-ÃÂÃÂ½ years.
The polls also suggest the conservatives would lose their two-seat majority in the Senate, while the Greens would take up to six seats — and with them the balance of power, allowing them to pass or defeat contentious legislation.
"We Greens would use the balance of power responsibly," Greens leader Bob Brown said on Wednesday, adding his party would have a key role in the Senate no matter who won government.
Elections are held every three years for all 150 seats in the lower House of Representatives, where the government is formed. But Senators are elected for six years, with only about half of the 76 seats contested at each election.
New Senators take their seats from July 1, 2008, meaning Howard’s lawmakers will have the numbers to defeat possible Labor legislation in the upper house until mid-2008.
Opinion polls are pointing to a solid election win for Labor leader Kevin Rudd, although the Greens are polling strongly for seats in the Senate, where they currently hold four seats.
Veteran political correspondent Rob Chalmers, from the Inside Canberra political newsletter, said that despite the surge in support to Labor, Rudd would be unable to win enough Senate seats to secure a majority in the upper house.
The traditional balance of power party, the Australian Democrats have polled only about one percent of the vote all year, with the party set to lose all four of its remaining senators on November 24.
"Labor could not gain a majority, the Greens would have the balance of power and the Democrats would be wiped out," Chalmers told Reuters on Wednesday.
TEA AND FORESTS
Brown said he would work well with Rudd, in contrast with Howard, who he has only met once over a cup of tea in 1996. At that meeting, the Greens leader invited Howard to visit old growth forests in Brown’s home state of Tasmania.
"He gave me a cup of tea and I offered him the forest. I took the cup of tea and he took the forest," Brown said, referring to the government’s support for the logging industry. "I find Kevin Rudd a decent guy, a straight-talking man. I think it is time we had a change of government. I think the nation will benefit from it. Personally, I hope he is the next prime minister," he said.
Rudd’s support has been built on a promise to win back the government’s unpopular workplace laws, known as Work Choices, which encourage workers to sign individual contracts with employers rather than work under union-based awards.
But Labor will also keep some elements of the Work Choices package, particularly for high-income earners, to appease concerns of mining companies and employers who are struggling to find skilled workers in a tight labour market.
Brown said the Greens would try to amend Labor’s plans for the workplace laws, but would not block the legislation if Rudd wins the election.
"We will not block a Rudd Labor government’s workplaces overthrow regime," he said. ((Editing by John Chalmers: email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org, +612 6273 2730))