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Guardian

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.