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Leader: A tale of two very different coalition governments

A Labour-led minority government did not come to pass in the UK -- but a similar arrangement has tak

Within hours of the result of the general election being confirmed on the morning of 7 May, the London Evening Standard offered this headline on its front page: "Get Out of Number 10, Gordon". Over the next few days, a consensus against the prime minister remaining in office hardened: a minority Labour and Liberal Democrat government, supported by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists plus the lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas, was not deemed legitimate.

Yet, despite the complicated electoral arithmetic, a rainbow coalition was neither beyond the boundaries of constitutional possibility nor common-sense politics. David Cameron's Conservative opposition was significantly short of an overall majority, its share of the vote up by less than 4 percentage points from its 2005 election defeat.

A Labour-led minority government did not come to pass; and while there is no point fighting old battles again, we note with great interest events in Australia. After 17 days of intense negotiation, the Labor Party's Julia Gillard continues as prime minister, with a working majority of one in her country's lower house (the Green Party will hold the balance of power in the upper house). Australia has its first minority government since 1943, a precarious alliance based on a "confidence and supply" arrangement not dissimilar from the one discussed in Conservative and Liberal Democrat circles before 6 May. It could fall on the result of a single by-election.

Nevertheless, the promise of an array of progressive policies is tantalising. Because of the two independents who ultimately decided the election - Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott - the new Australian government is committed to delivering a rural infrastructure package worth A$10bn (£6bn), which includes investment in schools, as well as the creation of a countrywide high-speed broadband network. Meanwhile, action on climate change is firmly back on the political agenda. A tax on mining companies - a 30 per cent levy on iron and coal miners' profits - is a strong possibility: witness the fall in mining stocks on 7 September, the day the minority government was formed.

The Greens, who emerged as the real winners in the election, with a 4 per cent swing in their favour in both houses, are agitating for more humane treatment of asylum-seekers and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Intriguingly, for observers in Britain, Australia's Labor Party boldly ditched an unpopular leader in the hope of making the party electable. Polling suggests that had Labour replaced Gordon Brown before May, it would have gained an extra 20 to 30 seats in the election, enough for victory. Did the Labor Party make the right decision in replacing Kevin Rudd with Ms Gillard? It was a high-risk strategy that nearly failed, but we know from Mr Rudd's poll ratings at the time of his departure that he would have done no better, and probably a lot worse.

What of Ms Gillard, Australia's first elected female prime minister? She is an unconventional politician - her fellow countrywoman Germaine Greer described her with grudging admiration as "a childless 48-year-old unmarried atheist redhead who lives in sin with her hairdresser" - who fought a very conventional campaign. Now, she has to prove that the skills of diplomacy displayed in her coalition-building work can be repeated in government. Persuading two independents from conservative-leaning constituencies to join her, and signalling her intention to welcome Mr Rudd back into the cabinet to help heal internal party wounds, augur well.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right