Peter Hudson never gave much thought to politics while surfing all day off the New South Wales coast. That changed 12 days ago when the place he lives got the chance to shape Australia’s next government.
Hudson’s representative in parliament, Rob Oakeshott, is one of four independents being courted by the two main political parties after the first dead heat national election in 70 years. Neither Prime Minister Julia Gillard nor opposition leader Tony Abbott can form a majority government without their support.
“I can’t stop thinking about the election,” said Hudson, a 59-year-old surf-school operator, as he waxed his board last week on Flynns Beach in the constituency of Lyne. “Rob will have a lot of power, so he can deliver what the area needs for its hospitals and schools.”
The election stalemate has shone a spotlight on the health-care and climate concerns that were glossed over during national campaigns centered on whether to raise taxes for a mining industry that accounts for 9 percent of Australia’s economy. Oakeshott now has a stage to question why prosperity symbolized by 18 years of unbroken economic growth hasn’t trickled down to the oyster farms and timber yards of Lyne.
“These independents have been given more power than we have ever seen in Australian politics,” said Rodney Smith, from the department of government at Sydney University. “It’s a wake-up call for the major parties.”
Too Close to Call
Gillard’s Labor Party holds 71 seats to 73 for Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, with one seat still too close to call, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The sole Greens Party lawmaker pledged support for Labor in exchange for creating a committee to set penalties for emissions.
The election campaign was dominated by Gillard’s plan to tax iron ore and coal profits at companies such as BHP Billiton Ltd., which Abbott opposed. Oakeshott and his constituents say the parties should focus more on how to provide better care for an aging society, build roads and tackle climate change in the world’s driest inhabited continent.
“Ours is a services crisis,” Oakeshott, 40, said in an interview Aug. 31. “State and federal governments have been reluctant to provide matching funds for growth, health, education and roads.”
Forty kilometers (25 miles) from Flynn’s Beach and a thirty minute drive down a dirt road, Mark Bulley surveys 10 hectares (24.7 acres) of oyster racks at sunrise. The industry needs funds to research breeds better able to withstand pollution, said Bulley, who owns Hastings River Oysters. Climate change directly affects the nation’s harvesting of 20 million oysters a year because they’re sensitive to water temperatures, he said.
“Climate is important. We want to leave it in better shape than we found it,” he said.
Gillard, 48, ousted her Labor predecessor Kevin Rudd on June 24 after he shelved the government’s climate-change plan and his support fell to an election losing level. In July she delayed the bill, helping the Greens Party’s share of the national vote to jump 50 percent.
While Oakeshott and fellow independents Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Andrew Wilkie have been locked in meetings to discuss who they will support, the wishes of their constituents are clear. More than 54 percent of voters in the districts held by Oakeshott, Katter or Windsor want them to back Abbott compared with 34 percent support for Gillard, according to an Aug. 28 Newspoll survey.
In Lyne, the coalition candidate came second to Oakeshott, with 35 percent of the vote compared with his 47 percent. Labor trailed with 13 percent. When Oakeshott won the seat as an independent in 2008, it was the first victory for a candidate other than a National or Liberal lawmaker since the district was created in 1949.
One fifth of Lyne is over 65, almost double the ratio for the rest of New South Wales, straining its four hospitals. Its working population is smaller and unemployment rate of 7.1 percent compares with the state’s average of 4.6 percent.
“This is a conservative electorate and Rob has to understand that if he sides with Labor it will be political suicide,” said Bill Linney, who produces 5 million meat pies a year for Ridgey Didge Pies Pty. Ltd. in Port Macquarie, 360 kilometers north of Sydney. “We have an older population, which means health care is a big issue."
Linney, who voted for the coalition, spent A$100,000 on solar panels and a hot water system to reduce greenhouse emissions at his business. People need to be encouraged to adapt to climate change rather than have a carbon tax that the economy ‘‘can’t afford,’’ he said.
John Cassegrain, a local wine maker, said the Labor government had a track record of economic waste and that Oakeshott should push for a better deal for the region.
‘‘He’s become a bit of a superstar and he is faced with a real dilemma now,’’ said Cassegrain, a National Party supporter. ‘‘The big needs for this area are infrastructure and health. We’ll see if he can deliver.’’