CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's conservative government increased its narrow lead over the opposition in election vote counting on Thursday as a key lawmaker said the new administration might have to strike deals to tighten foreign investment rules and protect manufacturing jobs.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was traveling to Australia's remote northeast for talks Thursday with maverick independent lawmaker Bob Katter to discuss what demands Katter might make in return for supporting a minority government if the count from the weekend election ended with only Australia's third hung parliament in more than a century.
"I am very confident, very confident indeed that we will form ... a majority government in our own right, but I am, of course, talking to the crossbenchers as well," Turnbull told reporters in Katter's home state of Queensland, referring to the independent and minor party lawmakers who could hold the balance of power in a divided parliament.
"But so far the counting trends are very positive from our point of view," he said.
Turnbull's Liberal Party-led coalition needs at least a 76-seat majority in the House of Representatives, where it had controlled 90 seats before the election.
The Australian Electoral Commission put the coalition ahead in 74 seats, Labor in 71, and the minor parties and independents in five. Mail-in and absentee votes that are still being counted days after Saturday's vote are favoring the conservatives.
ABC election analysts — considered among the most reliable — were forecasting that the coalition had 73 seats, Labor 66, with minor parties and independents leading in five seats. Another six seats are still in doubt.
Senator Nick Xenophon spoke to Turnbull on Wednesday about his Nick Xenophon Team's potential support of a minority government.
Xenophon was his party's sole member in previous Parliament, but is expected to be joined in the new Parliament by two senators plus a lawmaker in the House of Representatives.
The election gives the Xenophon party a say over which party forms a minority government in a hung parliament and what legislation passes the Senate where no party has a majority.
Xenophon told Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Thursday that he, Katter and another independent senator, Jacqui Lambie, "share a concern about Australian jobs and Australian manufacturing and Australian farming land ... when it comes to our foreign investment."
None of the independents or minor party lawmakers — called crossbenchers because they sit between the major parties in Parliament — have said which party he or she would support in a hung parliament.
Bill Shorten, who leads the center-left Labor Party, said Wednesday that if Turnbull clung to power, he would still have to deal with the most conservative lawmakers in his party who are angry that Turnbull, a moderate, had ousted his predecessor Tony Abbott in an internal leadership ballot less than a year ago.
Turnbull would also have to deal with a more fragmented Senate, which includes One Nation party founder Pauline Hanson, a conservative firebrand who opposes Muslim and Asian immigration as well as free trade and is denounced by major parties.
Turnbull said he had no plans to meet Queensland-based Hanson while he was in her state on Thursday.
Liberal Party Deputy Leader Julie Bishop praised Turnbull's leadership despite the unexpectedly large voter swing away from the government.
"I think he did a very competent job. I do have faith in him. I think he'll be a great prime minister should he get over the line as I hope we will," Bishop said.
"I'm looking forward to a Parliament where we can work closely with the independents in the House of Representatives and in the Senate whether we form a majority government or minority government," she said.
If the government falls short of a majority, Governor-General Peter Cosgrove will give Turnbull the first chance to form a minority government with the support of one or more independent lawmakers.
If Turnbull can't, then Shorten will be given a chance to form a minority government. If neither side can form a government, then another election will be held.