Aust election: Reform dispute delays decision

A decision on who will form the next Australian government could be delayed with a squabble breaking out over parliamentary reform.

A deal had looked close with independent MP Bob Katter saying on Saturday that he hoped to make an announcement about which party he would support yesterday or today at the latest.

"I would most sincerely hope that it will be made ... at the very, very latest [today], but it's not in my hands alone, there are three of us here," the Kennedy MP said.

Katter and fellow rural independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor have the power to decide whether Julia Gillard remains Prime Minister or Opposition leader Tony Abbott takes her crown.

Labor and the Coalition had indicated they would support changing Parliament's rules, but yesterday the Opposition declared some of the reforms could strengthen the hand of future governments.

"My role as manager of Opposition business is to ensure that the Parliament is not diminished and the executive's power increased," key Coalition negotiator Christopher Pyne said.

Government house leader Anthony Albanese claimed that Labor had agreed to the independents' parliamentary reforms, but the Coalition was "dragging its feet" on the issue.

Oakeshott wants both sides to accept the reforms before he, Windsor and Katter announce whether they will back Gillard or Abbott.

Asked yesterday whether the squabbling could delay that announcement, Pyne said: "What is important is the changes to the standing orders for the past 110 years be correct, not rushed".

Katter and Oakeshott stayed in Canberra at the weekend to weigh up their options. Windsor was back in his electorate of New England, in northern New South Wales, but was due back in the capital today.

News Ltd newspapers reported that in an open letter to the independents, Abbott vowed to form the most "country-orientated" government since World War II to win their support. He also warned the trio that they would damage the country's "social fabric" if they supported Labor.

Fairfax newspapers reported that, in a blow to the Coalition, Windsor had backed Labor's A$43 billion ($55 billion) national broadband network, criticising the Opposition's cheaper alternative as a "retrograde policy" that would create a digital backwater in rural Australia.

Windsor told the Sunday Age Labor's broadband network was the better of the two policies.

The parliamentary reforms include time limits for questions and answers, an independent Speaker and an acknowledgement of country before prayers.

There is also to be a new turbo-charged committee system and a parliamentary budget office.

"The Prime Minister signed on behalf of Labor yesterday with Rob Oakeshott," Albanese told the Nine Network yesterday.

"It would appear [the Coalition have] changed their views on some of the positions that have been put forward, such as the nature of the arrangements to ensure the independence of the Speaker," Albanese said.

The Coalition wanted the Speaker to be "automatically" drawn from the Opposition.

The document Labor has backed allows for the Speaker to come from either party or to be non-aligned.

If the Speaker does comes from a particular party the Deputy Speaker will come from the other side of politics. Pairing arrangements will be in place for both - meaning their vote will be cancelled out rather than lost.

"That will take away the need in the view of a tied vote for whoever's in the chair to cast a vote," Albanese said.

Further, both the Speaker and the Deputy will not attend their respective party room meetings.

Questions during Question Time will be limited to 30 seconds and answers will be restricted to three minutes. They will have to be "directly relevant".

Albanese said the Speaker would be able to rule out questions that were "argumentative or don't ask for issues of fact".

A parliamentary budget office will also be established within the parliamentary library.

"It will be able to look at issues including costings, particularly from the Opposition but also individual members," Labor's house leadersaid.

The Coalition insists a truly independent Speaker cannot be drawn from the government.

"We think it's preferable that the speaker be an independent MP," Pyne said.

"If not, they should be from a non-government party."

- AAP

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