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Independent MPs hold key to Australia's new government

With Saturday's election producing Australia's first hung parliament in 70 years, three independent MPs said they might act as a bloc in negotiations over whether Julia Gillard stays as prime minister or opposition coalition leader Tony Abbott replaces her.

world Updated: Aug 24, 2010 07:39 IST

With Saturday's election producing Australia's first hung parliament in 70 years, three independent MPs said they might act as a bloc in negotiations over whether Julia Gillard stays as prime minister or opposition coalition leader Tony Abbott replaces her.

The independents said they would press regional issues but want to avoid being seen as chasing wish lists.

When counting closed at 2.00 am on Sunday, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) announced Gillard's Labor and the opposition coalition led by Liberal Party's Tony Abott as winning 71 seats each. There were three independent MPs and a Green.

Independent MP Tony Windsor from New South Wales said the major issue was stability of governance. Having once held the balance of power in the New South Wales parliament, he sought to reassure the public. "This will be a good parliament - people shouldn't be afraid of it," he said.

Rob Oakeshott, also from New South Wales, said he would look at the best outcome for his electorate and the country, while Bob Katter, from Queensland, said: "There is no way that I'm going to give the gong to either side unless I've got an undertaking that we have the right to survive in rural Australia".

"I think there's a lot of sense in these early days as the dust settles, that we do stand shoulder to shoulder to try and drive some stability outcomes for the next three-year term," Oakeshott was quoted as saying by ABC.

Windsor said that in negotiations "we'll all be independent of each other in a sense but there may be an easier way of handling it if we speak together".

Meanwhile, tension flared between the independents and the opposition coalition, with Katter accusing a senior Senate Nationals leader of "an act of incredible stupidity" in having "a cheap shot" at Windsor during Saturday's election telecast.

But Katter said he had "worked with people I loathe and detest" when that was necessary for a good outcome.

Julia Gillard, meanwhile, on Sunday promised to "provide stable and effective government".

She said it was conceivable that she could hold on to the government with one MP lesser than the Coalition by securing the support of the independents.

"It's my intention to negotiate in good faith an effective agreement to form government," she was quoted as saying by The Age.

The prime minister expressed confidence that her policies would appeal more strongly to the independents than Abbott's. She also cited her record as a consensus builder and her standing as preferred prime minister in polls before the election to argue she was best placed to provide a stable government.

Both Gillard and Abbott have spoken to the independent MPs. Both said the conversations were not substantive but that they could have further talks.

Gillard also met Greens leader Bob Brown, while Abbott talked with him over phone.