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Jul 10, 2014

Don't blame the Senate -- or the crossbench -- for Australia's political malaise: Xenophon

The new crossbench shows Australians' distaste with the two major parties, writes independent Senator Nick Xenophon.


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. 


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24 thoughts on “Don’t blame the Senate — or the crossbench — for Australia’s political malaise: Xenophon

  1. klewso

    I wasn’t – I reckon it’s Tea Party Syndrome.

  2. Chris Hartwell

    I suspect Senator Xenophon, that you’re the human spacer we first see Obi-wan talking to, motioning to Chewbacca behind you.

    A.K.A. the only normal bugger in there.

  3. Chris Hartwell

    Alternatively, you may be the human bartender, but as it turns out he’s an alien-juicing psychopath. Han shot first, and the body ended up in cocktails.

    We’ll stick with you being the human spacer.

  4. Lee Miller

    Here, here, Nick, we don’t have leaders or intelligent vision anymore – just delinquent spin.

  5. beachcomber

    Xenophon may laud the death of major parties, but what of a system where 1000 votes can make you a Senator?
    People are disenchanted with the whole system, and this ratbag mob of independents elected with support from a handful of voters (who probbaly picked them at random or confused them with someone else) is a large part of the problem.
    But Xenophon is right on one thing. People are ropeable with Abbott. The sooner the Liberals dump him the less significant will be the harm he does to this country.

  6. David Hand

    Well, Nick,
    PUP has about a month to prove you right and actually deliver a clear message about what it stands for. Otherwise the Star Wars cantina analogy has credibility.

    You can’t possibly criticise this government of being poll driven and focus group driven after this budget.

    In fact as I look through your own views in the latter part of this article, you look pretty poll driven to me.

    Vote down the GP co-payment, continue throw money at cars and universities.

    Find the $80bn in unfunded promises by the ALP for health and education, something the ALP itself did not do.

    Oh and please identify one single pensioner in 2014 whose pension is going to be cut.

  7. Dogs breakfast

    Thank you Mr Xenophon, the outstanding person in either chamber.

  8. Steve777

    The Coalition had a radical “reform” agenda that it sort of “forgot” to tell the voters before the election. They banged on about boats, the carbon tax and muttered darkly about unspecified “waste and mismanagement”. They have a mandate to do very little.

    Now they’re trying to slip their agenda in under cover of a fake “budget emergency”, throwing away billions in revenue and extracting the difference from Medicare, hospitals, education and pensions. Well, apart from the converted, no one’s buying it.

  9. Yclept

    Yes, the two party system is broken and needs a serious overhaul if it is to regain trust, but I can’t see that happening voluntarily. So the more ratbag independents the better. Let the two parties learn how to work in a multi-party democracy and bring back conscience votes – allow elected representatives actually represent their constituents..

  10. Steve777

    I have no sympathy for arguments that independents wield disproportionate power. To the extent that this is true, the major parties hand that power to the few independent and minor party elected members by insisting that their own elected members act as cyphers for the party line.

  11. Dogs breakfast

    It’s quite rich that David Hand would insist on PUP senators delivering a clear message.

    It seems to be a standard that he doesn’t set for his beloved coalition mob.

    Of course his response will be that the budget set the clear message, not realising that the budget was a complete contradiction of every message delivered from Tony Abbott in the preceding three years.

    But why would I be contesting opinions with David Hand? Brings to mind a few aphorisms warning against wrestling with pigs, and arguing with fools.

  12. klewso

    Unlike some, I can still remember the sport to be had, revelling in government embarrassment when that government was Labor – of course that was all Right then?

  13. AR

    If only there were Independents of Xenophon’s quality elsewhere. No small feat to have outpolled the ALP in SA’s Senate score. Missed out on 2nd quota because of the sheer stupidity (to be kind)of the Greens ion not preferencing him.
    I don’t approve of the preference whisperer but I have even less affection (if minus is measurable) for the 97% of the electorate that votes above the line in the Senate.

  14. David Hand

    Mr Breakfast!
    You don’t need to contest opinions with me. Contesting an opinion is a completely voluntary activity.

    I’m surprised you don’t have a clear understanding of the coalition’s policy. I’ll spell out Abbott of the past 2 years.
    1. Axe the tax
    2. Stop the boats
    3. Pay off Labor’s debt.

    It’s amazing that you think Tony has changed his mind but hey, in these pages, I doubt he could buy a litre of milk at the corner store without someone criticizing him.

  15. JohnB

    Many thanks, Senator Xenophon.

    Of course I don’t always agree with you, but on today’s subject I could not agree with you more.

    The problem remains: Where were the “real” journalists during the Gillard era and the 2013 election campaign? Why did they not rise up as one and demand real policies from the three-word-slogan party?

    In closing and given the huge amount of real and continuing damage that this failure of the journalists and commentators of the 4th Estate has foisted on Australia, what should their punishment be?

  16. PaulM

    I wish this myth that the cross-bench Senators were elected with a 1000 votes would go away. Only Ricky Muir falls into this category. Xenephon on 25+% outpolled the Labor Party. Glen Lazarus and David Lejonhelm both polled nearly 10% of the vote, Jacquie Lambie polled 6%.

    Yes, the opaque prefrence deals contributed, but preference deals also got the last Coalition Senators elected in WA and NSW.

    Finally, to Tony Abbott, leading a Government is lot harder than shouting from the sidelines, isn’t it?

  17. Yclept

    “Finally, to Tony Abbott, leading a Government is lot harder than shouting from the sidelines, isn’t it?” Yes it was so much easier criticizing Rudd/Gillard for buying a litre of milk from the corner store.

  18. mrsynik

    Senator Xenophon, is there any way you could lure Ted Mack out of retirement. Your common sense is similar to that of the legendary former independent member for North Sydney.

  19. MJPC

    Thank you Senator Xenophon for a clear outline of what is happening in the senate away from the LNP spin, and News limited pap.
    Whilst I have never seen a weribee duck, it’s description aptly describes just what an unmitigated disaster the LNP has created in their first budget. The carbon tax is still not repealed (but will be), then the mining tax (that will go without a wimper, courtesy of Palmer’s vested interest) then ??? everything else is pure poison, starting with the medicare co-payment.
    You missed out one item of their government, and that is it’s appeal to unadulterated narcissism and their appeal to base instincts amongst the politic, they are just plain evil.

  20. Liamj

    Onya Nick, your integrity and focus has helped all the other independants and minor parties be taken seriously by voters. If Phony Tony gets stroppy taunt him to pull that double dissolution trigger, and endorse some independants you can work with for the HoReps.

  21. Sean Doyle

    Whilst I don’t agree with everything Xenophon stands for, I’d much rather him in the Senate than pretty much any major party member. Whilst the issues with Senate voting and group tickets desperately needs to be cleaned up, I am still very happy to see variety in the chamber. I only wish that Tony Windsor didn’t retire, given that he was easily the best MP of the previous parliament.

    @Paul M (#16, 7:42pm): Whilst David Lejonhelm did get nearly 10% of the vote, it looks pretty clear that rather than reflecting a NSW centric surge in support for neo-liberalism with both barrels, his high vote was due to the most successful donkey vote in Australian electoral history caused by his party’s name being similar to the Liberal party’s and getting lucky by snagging the leftmost position on the metre long Senate ballot paper. This would have been likely a bigger issue for elderly voters and NESB voters. The case leads one to consider the merits of both randomising the positions of candidates on ballot papers (as already occurs in some state elections) and toughening the rules concerning the names of political parties.

  22. David Hand

    You make a good point PaulM. We absolutely want to have senators of Nick Xenephon’s ability and integrity in the senate.

    But the micro party issue is not just the petrol heads. In the first WA election we had a sporting enthusiast got in via the same method. What is clear is that a method to game the senate voting system has been discovered and it must simply be stopped.

    The method is to spawn a dozen single issue parties to collect a few hundred votes each and then preference each other so that one of them aggregates all the votes of the group. That aggregate then capitalises on larger parties preferences who are fighting other large parties. This happened in 2007 when Family first got one in Victoria because Labor preferenced them ahead of the Greens out of fear that the Greens might displace a Labor senator. In the end they were stuck with an arch conservative bloke with virtually no policy alignment with the voters who elected him.

    It will only get worse in the future. We might well face 100 parties in future elections many of them created by an individual. Optional preferencing above the line has most promise.

  23. klewso

    “Proportional Representation in the House of Legislation”.

  24. Stuart Johnson

    AR says “Missed out on 2nd quota because of the sheer stupidity (to be kind)of the Greens ion not preferencing him.” This is quite simply not true, it is a myth which stems from the fact that Family First got elected after the Greens were eliminated from the count, but on the elimination of the Greens the vast majority of distributed votes originated from the Labor ticket. Changing Greens preferences would not change the outcome. There was a potential for it to be decisive, but it wasn’t, and not by a long way, so if you want to say that it was a bad choice of preferencing then that’s fine, but to say it made a difference is incorrect. Also I’d be careful about saying the Greens did not preference him highly, they put Xenaphon very high in their preferences, but it was his running mate who was lower.

    Secondly it isn’t entirely clear whether a second Xenophon candidate is a good thing, when he got two quotas in the state he brought along Ann Bressington who was seemingly at odds with Mr Xenophon on many issues.


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