This week the federal Parliament welcomed 12 new senators from around the country. If, as some have suggested, the new Senate resembles the cantina scene from Star Wars, full of colourful characters from all over the universe, then I must be sitting at the bar too, because I’ve had a front-row seat in the Senate for this week’s developments. The new senators, like the old, reflect Australia in all its diversity, and I look forward to working with all of them.
Lately some writers have questioned Australia’s ability to make big reforms and prosper given the apparent difficulty encountered by this government and the Labor one before it — although for vastly different reasons. Some have spoken of a “malaise” in Australia’s politics and pointed fingers at the Senate as some kind of scapegoat. I can tell you now — the malaise was there before the latest addition to the Senate.
In fact, I firmly believe the new crossbenchers are part of the solution to Australia’s sclerotic political system, not part of the problem. As a South Australian independent Senator since 2008 and an independent upper house member in South Australia’s Parliament before that, I’ve observed governments of both side pushing agendas, some successfully, some woefully. It is true that federal governments have encountered big problems setting reform goals and achieving them over the past decade. The current government’s problems are part of this malaise, but it begs the question — why has this happened?
I believe the major parties are just reaping what they have sown, since the last term of the Howard government and the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. Now the Abbott government has sailed onto rocks of its own making. The factors at play include mismanagement, bickering, ideology, pettiness, focus groups, an obsession with leadership and the opinion polls, a lack of common sense nor an eye for the big picture narrative. These are just some of the reasons Australians voted in a record crossbench of 18 senators at the last election, equating to 24% of the chamber.
ABC elections expert Antony Green has confirmed that the 2013 election was a new high in a 30-year climb in support for non-major parties, recorded at 21% support House of Representatives races and 32% for Senate races. While I have serious misgivings over some of the “preference whispering” between micro-parties — and even the majors — that can produce curious results, the overall vote for the two major political blocs and the Greens was approximated in the numbers on the floor of the Senate. Labor lost six senators, and all of them went to the new crossbench senators.
More noteworthy, given the complaints from the current government about having their “mandate” blocked, was the Liberal result in the Senate — the worst of any incoming government. The PM now has fewer Liberal Senators than when he was opposition leader. His Senate Coalition team of 33 compares with John Howard’s final term team of 39 senators. That speaks volumes about the Prime Minister’s “mandate” but also suggests where the blame for Australia’s political malaise lies. Because the performance of the Coalition since taking government has only reinforced, not dispelled, Australians’ misgivings and cynicism about politics.
The budget in May was a stinker. As one senator reportedly told The Australian Financial Review this week, the budget was “in more shit than a Werribee duck”, referencing the coastal town south of Melbourne that hosts a sewage treatment plant. I have big policy problems with the budget, such as the Medicare co-payment and the cuts to auto sector workers, pensioners, social security, higher education, health, schools, foreign aid and renewable energy funding. But I’ve been gobsmacked at the blind-siding of the whole country by this government. When did the government tell the states they were stripping a lazy $80 billion out of their future health and education budgets? When did the government tell the auto sector it would drain a further $600 million out of industry assistance (that makes $1.1 billion cut in total) that could have gone to restructuring ahead of the exit of the car makers? When did the government tell the universities it was going to cut 20% from federal funding for undergraduate courses and deregulate the sector? When did the government tell self-funded retirees it was taking away their modest seniors’ supplement?
Never, that’s when. Until budget night, that was. The subtext is all about mistrust of the electorate. I’m tipping Budget 2.0, sometime soon. And the government won’t get that through unless it restores trust with the voters.
Nick Xenophon is an independent Senator for South Australia. This piece was first published on InDaily.