Jun 23, 2014

Poll Bludger: meet the senators who hold the balance of power

Tony Abbott will have to woo the Palmer United senators and a few more to get any of his legislation passed. Let's look at the new senators who will be standing in the way of an Abbott agenda.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

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.

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11 thoughts on “Poll Bludger: meet the senators who hold the balance of power

  1. Don

    “libertarian … against almost anything that cuts spending or taxes”

    is this a mis-typing as it is not what I thought ‘libertarian’ meant.

  2. 81dvl

    Hmm; Our Cathy McGowan not relevant?

  3. MJPC

    Just what do they stand for because I am confused.
    So, Bob Day is a wanna-be Lib (I’m rich therefore I am) whose dirty because he lost pre-selection;
    David L “has him lining up against almost anything that cuts spending or taxes” (including the carbon tax?).
    How can they have a meeting of minds as they would be diametrically opposed it appears to me. Aren’t the Libs the low tax crowd?

  4. Chris Hartwell

    It will be a mis-type Don – libertarians are vocally anti-tax, anti-government-spending.

  5. Zarb Michael

    Should read “almost anything that cuts spending or increases taxes”

  6. Dion Giles

    There’s good reason for a careful look at what agendas are being pursued by the “others” in the recently elected Senate. A decent thing (some argue the ONLY decent thing) John Howard did for the common citizens of Australia was to stand up to the gun freaks in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre and crack down on them with sweeping national legislation to end the legal open slather enabling lunatics like Martin Bryant to get hold of weapons that can send a 12-round burst through an engine block.

    There is a determined campaign to reverse these reforms 18 years later and reintroduce the open slather.

    The gun freaks are seeking to make Australia like America where 10 thousand people are shot dead each year by other Americans. The campaign to roll back the Howard firearm reforms is centred on spokesmen like Senator Leyonhjelm who snuck in under the deceptive title of “Liberal Democrat” on preferences allocated by major party apparatchiks. They are not choices made by the electorate.

    The answer is in the runup to elections to ask the major party electoral teams to steer clear of swapping preferences with groups inimical to the interests (especially safety) of the people. And also to avoid the tickabox option and go to the trouble of voting below the line.

  7. John Taylor

    Dion – fully automatic weapons were illegal before Port Arthur. Bryant did not have access to weapons that fired a “12 round burst”. Ease up on the hyperbole, try telling the truth and you might have a bit more credibility.

  8. Don

    surely it should be (against) “almost anything that increases spending or taxes”

  9. Don

    @john. what weapon did he have btw?

  10. William Bowe

    Apologies – the bit about spending and taxes should indeed say the opposite of what it actually says.

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