It has taken the best part of a year, but the full consequences of last August’s election have now played out. The marked step to the Left taken by voters, partly out of frustration at the rubbish served up by the major parties, has now translated fully into parliamentary representation, with the Greens taking the balance of power in the Senate and attaining true third-party status.
The conservatariat may froth at the mouth, but voters are getting more or less exactly what they wanted. The Greens polled 13% in the Senate, and now have 12% of Senators. The only peculiarity is that most of the Greens’ 4+% swing came from Labor voters, but it’s the Liberals who ended up losing the most senators (some good — Alan Ferguson, Nick Minchin, Judith Troeth, some … not so good — Julian McGauran). But you can mostly thank the lingering consequences of Mark Latham’s #epicfail 2004 campaign for that. Labor is so eager to take advantage of the new Senate, maiden speeches are being delayed into August so that next week can be devoted to putting through government legislation.
The most significant consequence of the electorate’s shift to the Left has already been playing out for months. Australia will now likely get an emissions trading scheme designed to be more effective than the CPRS. Businesses complaining about it should direct their concerns to Tony Abbott, who brought the Greens into play the moment he reneged on his party’s 2007 election commitment. The CPRS was purpose-designed to stifle any carbon price until beyond 2020, with some of the world’s richest multinationals scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts. Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong point blank refused to even discuss it with the Greens, and then had the temerity to complain when the Greens voted against it.
Now the Greens have had a key role in shaping the design of the new scheme, while the Liberals pander to denialists and rent-seekers. As with the NBN, the Abbott-led Liberals appear to prefer skipping the role of trying to improve policy in favour of the political equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and repeatedly yelling “no”.
The new Senate also further empowers the independents in the House of Representatives. The Senate equation is now much simpler. There is no lottery about which way Steve Fielding will vote, no matrix of amendments that will satisfy Fielding, Nick Xenophon and the Greens. Now it’s all down to whatever works for the Greens and the independents in the Reps.
Conversely, the Greens’ role takes pressure off Coalition senators, and particularly the Nationals. Now it doesn’t matter nearly as much if a Coalition Senator crosses the floor. For the past three years, that may have meant a loss for the Coalition. Discipline has been a strong point for the Abbott-led Coalition, in contrast to the Senate shenanigans that went on under Malcolm Turnbull. But that discipline is getting ever more fragile, particularly with Peter Reith and Nick Minchin free to speak their minds on whatever takes their fancy — IR reform and climate denialism, respectively.
Changes in the Senate have a peculiar way of rippling across federal politics in ways no one ever foresees. When Brian Harradine declared he couldn’t back the GST, he dealt in the Democrats for what turned out to be a catastrophic misjudgment by Meg Lees that literally destroyed her party. When the Coalition gained Senate control — a floor-crossing or two from Barnaby Joyce aside — in 2005, it too occasioned terrible misjudgment that helped end the Howard government. This change, more than most, is likely to have consequences no one can predict, and not just for the Greens.