The election held last September will finally reach its resolution next week with the commencement of the new Senate term.
With the newly elected members replacing the class of 2007, the combined majority that Labor and the Greens have enjoyed since mid-2011 will come to an end, presenting the government with a more conducive environment together with a new set of challenges.
Tony Abbott is hardly the first prime minister to find himself grappling with a difficult Senate, particularly upon first arriving in office, when half the Senate numbers remain from an election the newly governing party did not win.
Balance-of-power arrangements have been the norm since the Fraser government lost its Senate majority after the 1980 election, initiating a 24-year period in which the Australian Democrats stood between two sets of bastards who, as party founder Don Chipp famously maintained, needed keeping honest.
With the centrist Democrats a spent force after 2005, prime ministers after John Howard have increasingly been confronted with ideologically marginal concerns harvesting an ever-increasing anti-major party vote.
In Labor’s first term, it was not enough for Kevin Rudd simply to secure the support of the Greens — newly elected independent Senator Nick Xenophon and 2004 election hangover Steve Fielding of Family First were also needed to make up the numbers, which among other things gravely complicated efforts to negotiate the doomed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Nonetheless, last year’s micro-party bonanza has produced complexity of a kind that has never been seen before, and will likely never be seen again after looming electoral reform does its work.
“The government requires six extra votes to secure the absolute majority needed to pass legislation and five to vote down initiatives not of its own making … “
Abbott’s government will come to the table with 33 senators in a chamber of 76 — two fewer than John Howard ever knew, thanks to the successes of Ricky Muir (Motoring Enthusiasts), Bob Day (Family First) and Jacqui Lambie (Palmer United) in winning Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian seats that might otherwise have gone to the Coalition.
With Labor on 25 seats and the Greens on 10, the piggies in the middle include two further Palmer United senators in Glenn Lazarus from Queensland and Dio Wang from Western Australia; David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party, from New South Wales; and Victorian Senator John Madigan of the Democratic Labour Party, who won his seat in 2010.
The government thus requires six extra votes to secure the absolute majority needed to pass legislation and five to vote down initiatives not of its own making, with tied votes being resolved in the negative. In circumstances where Labor and the Greens unite against the Coalition, neither will be possible without the four-vote bloc consisting of Palmer United plus Ricky Muir.
There is a view abroad that this grouping might not prove as cohesive as all that, no doubt informed by what happened the last time parliamentary debutantes were assembled under the banner of a political maverick from Queensland. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation rocked the political establishment when 11 of its candidates won seats at Queensland’s state election of 1998, but by the time the next election rolled around three years later, not a single one of them remained in the party fold.
However, Palmer’s decades of political experience, together with his famously deep pockets, presents the starkest possible contrast with Hanson, who proved scarcely less out of her depth than Ricky Muir. What’s more, his brood of incoming senators have, with one exception, singularly failed to offer any indication that they might prove willing or even able to rock the boat.
The exception is Jacqui Lambie, who came to the party after falling out with the Liberals, and has exhibited a certain feistiness in her public persona.
That qualification aside, there seems little reason not to proceed on the assumption that these four votes will indeed behave as one. When the support of the Palmer bloc can be secured, the government will still need a further two votes out of the four remaining micro-party and independent Senators.
It is to the government’s advantage that this is a decidedly mixed bunch, as it should usually be able to pick off support as required depending on the nature of the issue. Family First and the Democratic Labour Party both have foundations in religious conservatism, but in other ways their respective Senators are poles apart. Bob Day is a wealthy housing tycoon who ran for the Liberal Party in 2007, and fell out with it after losing preselection for Alexander Downer’s old seat of Mayo to Jamie Briggs. By contrast, John Madigan takes the “labour” in Democratic Labour Party very seriously, apparently to the extent of displaying an Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union flag in his parliamentary office.
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies David Leyonhjelm, whose cogent libertarian philosophy should result in him lining up against almost anything that cuts spending or taxes, while placing him on the opposite side of any socially conservative concern that might unite Day and Madigan.
Leyonhjelm and Day have entered a voting bloc, which the latter describes as “a meeting of the minds”, but this is notably limited to economic as distinct from social policy.
The least unknown of the crossbench quantities is Xenophon, whose distinguishing concern will presumably continue to be extracting concessions for South Australia, together with his long-standing advocacy for restrictions on poker machines.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.