With the political-media establishment still reeling from the shock of the 2014 Senate result and the horror of having to do actual politics to get a program through, much of the electorate is still confused about how it all stacks up. We asked Paul Kelly, but he was going up the down escalator of decline. We asked Annabel Crabb, but she was baking scones for Aleksandr Lukashenko. We asked Peter Hartcher, who told us that Rudd’s leadership was in doubt. So we did it ourselves. Here, at vast expense to the management, is 50 shades of dynamic Red.

The numbers:

There are 76 senators — 12 for each state, and two for each of the territories. With the President of the Senate normally not voting, the government needs 38 (**actually 39 — see correction) of 75 senators to pass legislation.

They are distributed as follows.

The parties:

  • Lib/Nat Coalition:  33, comprising 23 Liberal, 6 Liberal-National Party (Qld), 3 National, 1 Country Liberal Party (NT).
  • Labor: 25
  • Greens: 10
  • Palmer United Party:  3

Single members:

  • Nick Xenophon
  • John Madigan — Democratic Labour Party
  • Bob Day — Family First
  • David Leyonhjelm — Liberal Democratic Party
  • Ricky Muir — Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party

The basic Right-Left split:

Government (Right): 34
Coalition, plus Leyonhjelm and Day

Left: 40
Labor, Greens, PUP, Muir and Madigan

Swing: 1

The Left’s numbers may change, but on the Left-Right axis of economic policy, they clearly have strong numbers. The Palmer United Party have made it clear that they will block most of the attacks on what remains of the social welfare state and are opposing the “asset recycling”, i.e. privatisation fluffer, program. Madigan’s DLP roots would suggest an orientation to old-style economic nationalism, trade union recognition and an opposition to mindless privatisation, and Muir has been described as “ALP-oriented” on these matters by Glenn Druery, his adviser for nine minutes.  The stated positions of Leyonhjelm and Day give PUP the power to gift the magic 38 to whichever side wants them. But if PUP sticks to a fixed position, the power then rests with Xenophon, Muir and Madigan, who can be flexible and issue-based, and retain their credibility. If Muir joined Xenophon and Madigan as a centrist trio, he would have vastly more power than as an adjunct to Palmer.

Foreign policy

Much of this can be done through executive action, but the commitment of, say, the Royal Australian Air Force , or “advisers”, on the ground in Iraq would sharpen the issue. On a basic commitment to the United States, it’s a slam dunk — the Senate lines up 65-10 against the Greens. But on Abbott’s more gung-ho version — should Labor choose to oppose — it’s more complex. PUP is in favour of strong defence, but not necessarily overseas adventures. Leyonhjelm, as a libertarian, is not necessarily signed on for big government abroad, and Muir is an unknown.

Liberal rights

This split, which comes up over questions like section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, multiculturalism, etc, is whether you see rights and freedoms as minimal and invested in the individual, or collective and expansive. This would come down to an issue-by-issue tussle.

General multiculturalism and 18C

Religion and “Australian values”

On the issue of religious rights, religion in schools, secularism, etc, Day and Madigan would line up. But Xenophon, with a liberal religious component to his base, might be a bit more circumspect here — and PUP and Muir are once again wildcards, the former perhaps cleaving to a more traditional idea of Australian life, and the centrality of Christianity, etc, to it.  As a libertarian (if he is one) Leyonhjelm would, we expect, oppose state-authorised religious or cultural discourses. But he would also oppose the extension of power by conservative religious groups.

Censorship, exclusion of  undesirables, etc

The “Team Australia” rhetoric is about silencing dissent, and this would be the bloc of the Coalition, plus Day and Madigan. Labor can always be persuaded to roll over on national security, but historically they have been more friendly to civil liberties than the Coalition. Xenophon errs on this side, and you would hope the LDP would.

The swing voters would be PUP and Muir. Once again, this split reveals that Muir has more power as a free agent, than as part of the PUP bloc (if indeed he still is).

Same-sex marriage

If the Coalition acceded to bringing on the same-sex marriage bill, Labor would have no choice but to urge a conscience vote at the very least — and due to the threat of the Greens gaining new youf support, might have to roll their otiose Catholic Right and vote “for”. On a genuine conscience vote, it would pass pretty easily.

Border protection

PUP have come out of the closet on this one, before the election. But once again, so much is done by regulation that the point is somewhat moot.


All of this is imprecise and doesn’t take into account the many complexities of the Senate — the ability to run committees, ask questions, get bills up etc, which take smaller numbers — and of course the possibility of Lib-Nat divergence, floor-crossings, and eventual defections. But it’s complicated enough already — and we are happy to hear alternative cut-ups. Use our cut-out-and-keep game and show us what you get.

*Infographics by Jake Stevens

** Correction: Heh, we were a little fast and loose there. In fact, the President of the Senate does have a deliberative (but not casting) vote, so the Coalition need 39 — themselves plus six — to get a vote through. They only need a tie — 38-38 — to defeat a measure.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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