Independent lawmakers meet to decide support in neck-and-neck Australian elections

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Three independent lawmakers who could hold the key to a new Australian government were aligning their positions Tuesday as the continuing vote count from weekend elections yielded no clear winner, leaving the government in limbo.

The Australian Electoral Commission said the ruling Labor Party had won 72 seats in the House of Representatives and the Liberal-led coalition 70 seats in Saturday's polling, with 78 percent of the vote counted. Four seats were still undecided.

A 76-seat majority is needed to rule the country and both Labor and Liberal leaders have been courting the three independent kingmakers, who planned to meet together in Canberra later Tuesday.

"We'll have a good lengthy session just to look through the tea leaves and start to shape a bit of a strategy from a process point of view as to how we engage with the various stakeholders," lawmaker Rob Oakeshott told reporters.

He suggested the two major political parties could work together in a unity government, assigning Cabinet positions to each side, saying voters had proven they were tired of party politics.

"I do think here is a moment where we can explore the edges, and explore outside the box," he said.

Fellow independents Bob Katter and Tony Windsor had yet to arrive in Canberra. The three are expected to meet Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Liberal leader Tony Abbott this week but have said they want to wait until the final four seats are decided before making their final decisions of support.

Until the votes are counted and the seats allocated, the center-left Labor Party — which has ruled for the past three years — remains in control of the caretaker government.

Legal experts from the Australian National University said election rules allow Gillard to carry on in her caretaker role for up to three months while she struggles to enlist a majority.

By convention, Gillard should have the first chance to form government. She bases her claim to rule on the election outcome showing that more voters supported Labor than the coalition, despite that support failing to translate to a majority of seats.

Abbott argues that an unprecedented swing of votes away from Labor after only a single three-year term showed that voters wanted a change of government.

While minority governments rule in many countries, an Australian election has never failed to deliver a majority government since 1940. Two independents then helped form a conservative government, but brought it down within a year by switching their allegiances to Labor.

The three independents in this election are all from rural Australia and have said that their main issues of concern are broadband and communication, health care and education.


Tanalee Smith contributed to this report from Adelaide, Australia.