Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt.
Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt.

No preference for minor party players, for now

On the face of it, it seems a brave announcement.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who announced on Wednesday that he would direct the Liberal Party to place the Greens last on all how to vote cards, also said he would refuse to lead a minority government in the event of another hung parliament.

Abbott challenged Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to make the same promise.

Rudd has ruled out forming a coalition or negotiating a deal, though hasn't quite said that he won't lead another minority government.

And that might be just as well, as if both leaders refuse to lead a minority government and neither back down, the only way for the Governor-General to break the impasse would be to call another election. And wouldn't that be fun?

Of course, Abbott's announcement has come only after a happy coincidence of principle and practical politics.

The Coalition quickly formed a hostile view of hung parliaments after independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott backed Labor in 2010.

For three years they've seethed that Windsor and Oakeshott, who represented "conservative electorates", had somehow cheated them out of office. It looked and sounded a lot like sour grapes.

Windsor and Oakeshott have retired at this election and their seats will be won by the National Party.

As an aside, that means the Coalition effectively starts out at 75 out of 150 seats, meaning Rudd is in the curious position of having to win seats off the Opposition to remain in power.

Former Labor MP Craig Thomson and Former Liberal Peter Slipper are also very likely to be out of Parliament after this election.

That leaves just three of the current seven cross-bench MPs who could feasibly be part of negotiations in any new hung parliament.

Katter's Australian Party leader Bob Katter will easily retain his North Queensland electorate of Kennedy.

Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is favoured to hold the Hobart-based seat of Denison.

Greens MP Adam Bandt faces an uphill battle to retain his seat of Melbourne.

Bandt comfortably won the seat in 2010 despite finishing slightly behind Labor on primary votes, thanks to receiving 78% of Liberal Party preferences.

The Liberal Party knew, before the election, that directing preferences to Bandt would most likely elect him to Parliament.

It was only later, when Bandt was one of the votes that allowed Julia Gillard to continue as Prime Minister, that they got buyer's remorse.

Three months later, the Victorian Liberals made the same announcement that Abbott has just made, refusing to preference the Greens ahead of Labor in four inner-city seats at the Victorian state election.

Then-leader Ted Baillieu's call was popular with Liberal branch members, who had taken to viewing Labor as the lesser of two evils, but it helped Labor to easily retain the four seats and would have allowed them to re-direct campaign resources elsewhere.

The Liberals won that election with 45 seats to 43: had they preferenced the Greens they wouldn't now be one by-election away from losing power.

To the extent that their preferences ended up weakening their own position, the Liberals put principle ahead of pragmatism in 2010.

Abbott's call doesn't look quite the same.

Certainly, preferencing against Bandt will help Labor in Melbourne, though Bandt is far from finished.

The ABC's Antony Green estimates he needs to poll an extra 4% on the primary vote to compensate for the loss of Liberal preferences and still sneak home.

With a weakened Labor Party that has moved to the right on asylum seekers and carbon pricing and the benefit of incumbency, Bandt should be able to manage that.

Which brings me back to why Abbott feels safe promising not to lead a minority government: he doesn't think he could win the cross-bench over anyway.

Assuming there are no new cross-benchers elected (it's possible, but not very likely), then two out of the three will be Bandt and Wilkie.

A Green and a former Green-turned Independent, who between them represent two of the most progressive electorates in the country, will be disinclined to back an Abbott Government.

Katter, meanwhile, doesn't have much in common with Labor on policy but is a good friend of Rudd's.

The only realistic scenario by which Abbott has to deal with a minority if is he wins 75 seats, and he has to woo Katter for a 76th.

If that happens, expect Abbott to quickly forget how much he hates hung parliaments.

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