3 kingmakers wield power as Australia's major political parties woo to form government

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Forget the prime minister. Real political power in Australia right now is being wielded by a maverick in a cowboy hat and his two colleagues. A week after national elections ended on a knife edge, the unlikely trio of lawmakers have emerged as kingmakers.

Pugnacious Bob Katter is rarely seen without his broad-brimmed white felt hat — a reminder that while he strides the corridors of Parliament House in the national capital Canberra in a suit and tie, he's from untamed cattle and mining country in the remote northeast Outback.

Before Aug. 21 elections, Katter and fellow rural lawmakers Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were the only independents in the 150-seat House of Representatives. They struggled to have their voices heard in a parliament where lawmakers rarely vote against party lines — and are never forgiven when they do.

But political leaders have listened to them intently since the elections failed to deliver any party a victory for the first time in 70 years. Their support will determine whether the center-left Labor Party, which ruled for the past three years, or a conservative Liberal Party-led coalition forms a minority government. The unlikely alternative is Australians returning to the polls.

The independents demonstrated their leverage Friday when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott agreed to reveal confidential financial details to demonstrate which party had the best economic blueprint, and expose where they might have misled voters.

Katter's fans describe him as passionate while his critics say he's mad. All agree he is colorful and brings a different set of priorities to the national political agenda.

He has raised the concerns of constituents in his northern Queensland state that near-neighbor Indonesia "might pose an invasion threat." War with Indonesia seems unlikely to most Australians.

Dubbed "The Mad Katter" by newspaper headline writers — a play on the Lewis Carroll character and the big hat — Katter has stated homosexuals are rare in Queensland and nonexistent among his own constituents. He unsuccessfully opposed federal laws in 1994 that removed the last criminal sanctions against gay sex in Australia.

The white-haired 65-year-old of Lebanese descent struggles against the consensus of the major parties in other areas. While Australia is a leading force within the World Trade Organization for free trade of farm produce, Katter wants Australia to return to projectionist tariffs, reversing four decades of import liberalization.

But he has become accustomed to political rebuffs. "Many times I've gone to bed a cock-a-doodle-do and woke up the next morning a feather duster," he is often quoted as saying.

Katter was a disgruntled lawmaker within the conservative coalition for seven years before he quit his National Party as well as the government in 2001 to continue his career as an outspoken independent. Newspapers have reported that Katter branded the Liberals "slimy dogs."

His two lower-profile independent colleagues are also former National Party members. But they're not an easy fit with either major party.

Windsor — who since the election has described his former party as a "cancer-causing agent" and the party's Senate leader a "fool" and "an embarrassment" — says he has good relations with both Labor and the coalition.

The Australian Electoral Commission count updated Friday found Labor was likely to hold 72 seats in the lower chamber. The conservative coalition was on track to attain 73 seats, with more than 81 percent of the vote counted.

Whether either can achieve a majority of 76 depends on the three independents, dubbed by the media "The Three Amigos."

It could also hinge on newly elected fourth independent Andrew Wilkie, who quit his job as a defense intelligence analyst in 2003 in protest against the then-government's explanation for sending 2,000 Australian troops to back U.S. and British forces in the Iraq invasion. Wilkie doesn't support either party and shuns his fellow independents' negotiating bloc.

Greens party lawmaker Adam Bandt's stated support for Labor would tie the major parties at 73.