How Australia’s unlikely kingmakers won it for Gillard

In a knife-edge race, the independent candidates have enjoyed their moment in the spotlight.

Australians are breathing a collective sigh of relief at finally having a government again, more than a fortnight on from the federal election. And more than a few will be rejoicing at their country's narrow escape from the clutches of the Coalition leader, Tony "Mad Monk" Abbott.

But you get the feeling that Australia's independent MPs -- Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter, a politician whose devotion to his rural Queensland constituency of Kennedy has been somewhat overshadowed by his passion for the Akubra hat -- have been quite enjoying their moment in the sun. In a race so tight that every vote counted, Oakeshott was the last of the three to declare which party he would back -- an announcement he managed to keep back right to the end of a 17-minute speech.

To be fair, the speech was a pretty good one: his points about a new paradigm for Australian politics and the importance of regional and rural education were worth making, and Oakeshott made them well. But he's been offered a role on PM Julia Gillard's front bench already; maybe he could have saved some of them for later?

Still, compared to Katter, Oakeshott has been a model of restraint throughout the election (you might describe Windsor as monk-like by comparison, if monks didn't signify frenzy in the Australian political context). Katter has been basking in the media glow like an elderly behatted guana, defending his past comments about "the poof population of North Queensland" (non-existent, apparently), calling for the protection of local bananas and sugar, and denying that he has been having fun in the spotlight over the past couple of weeks ("I'm used to power").

This election has rested on a knife edge and the minority government's margin of power couldn't be slimmer. Even so, Gillard might be just a little bit relieved that Katter didn't side with her team in the end.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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