Well, the most drawn-out departure outside of bad opera concluded yesterday, with Senator Jacqui Lambie announcing that she had quit the Palmer United Party and would now sit as an independent. De facto she’s been so for some weeks, if not longer, ceasing to attend party meetings and breaking party “discipline” to vote for a reversal of the earlier FOFA wave-through. During that vote Senator Ricky Muir also bucked the discipline of the Palmer+1 bloc, which Clive had announced after the election.

Lambie’s move leaves the existing Senate crossbench fix in tatters. With a few million dollars in campaign funds, Clive Palmer had bought himself the balance of power within the balance of power, holding three votes of eight crossbenchers, with the government needing six to pass legislation. Lambie’s departure loses Palmer that core command, but that of course doesn’t make it easier for the Coalition to round up the necessary votes.

In fact, it might now be more difficult. One thing about Clive that almost everyone has missed — and which I detail at length in Clivosaurus, the most recent Quarterly Essay — is that he has a core politics drawn from Catholic centre-right doctrine that he seems unlikely to compromise on, such as the GP co-payment and university fees, and an outer layer of policy in which he will make any deal he wants. Clive does politics like a silk-seller in a bazaar — “forty dinars for that? You insult me! You insult my family! I am walking away, you dog of a dog, I will never … what’s that? Fifty dinars plus a camel? Sold.”

The press gallery never understood Clive’s process — which is just standard politics in somewhere like the US Senate, or Italy — out of genuine ignorance and parochialism, and it was easy to just mark him down as a loony. The Coalition knew otherwise and relied on the fact that, irritating as he was, he would steer the three PUPs and Muir to a result they could live with — the climate tax gone, but renewable energy surviving, the mining tax gone, but its attached social measures surviving for one Parliament. For all the palaver, these were all well-crafted compromises, rendered as incomprehensible by a press gallery who needed that story.

Now? Well, pick your ticket. For all the talk of blocs within the crossbenches, they are minimal two-person alliances with a highly provisional existence. Senators Xenophon and Madigan may caucus, but the latter is a loon on social issues, and the former a careful centrist. They survive as a unit by not talking about the things that Madigan cares most about. David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day? They look like a pair of killers-on-the-road, straight out of a David Lynch movie. Day ostensibly stands for a conservative Christian party, Leyonhjelm for libertarians. It only works because Day is an economic dry, failed Liberal, who took over the shell of Family First and bumped his way into Parliament using his fortune derived from spec home building. His passionate cause is to abolish penalty rates, a funny way of putting first families dependent on low-service wages.

When Palmer had a four-person bloc, the Coalition really only needed two others, from a pool of four relatively rational and politically experienced people. They now need either PUP plus four, or six independent crossbenchers, with the problem that each one is now in a position to welch on the deal as the magic five or six gets close. The most effective way for the crossbenchers to work now would be to thrash out a grand deal, in which they all get a little of what they want, in exchange for either a blanket deal with the government, with their proposals modified, or a blanket deal with the Labor-Greens bloc to block almost everything in exchange for a series of wins when the Abbott government is thrown out in 2016-17.

“There is no real concern or appetite for real democracy in Australia, and most of the ‘serious’ media are just people phoning it in with no belief in what they do, and no real interest in whether they could put pressure on to make the system work better.”

In all of this, Lambie has become even more of a wild card than she was hitherto, because there is no way to predict her behaviour. She is obviously someone who cares passionately about her particular cause — the conditions of veterans and serving personnel — and if she pursues that rationally and assiduously she could do a great deal of good for a group of people who often get a raw deal. If she does it with the grandstanding and futility she has done so to date, she will betray them afresh in the interests of her own ego.

To avoid that, she will need to take the role given to her by the people of Tasmania and take it seriously, knuckling down to the hard work the Senate involves. Her appalling performance with regards to the burqa and sharia law is not encouraging. Having made a big noise about the burqa, Lambie went on Insiders and could not answer even the most basic questions about sharia law.

Indeed, she couldn’t even be bothered to check Wikipedia, which suggests that much of her motivation came from egotism and the mental health issues in her past. Should she pursue that course, she’ll just end up a shameless, contentless carpetbagger like Pauline Hanson. Instead she can use the next five-and-a-half years to learn the craft of the Senate with humility and application, and disprove the implicit and explicit elitism — most recently expressed by journalist Annabel Crabb — that says that non-insiders, however they got there, can’t do politics.

Beyond all that of course, the Lambie-PUP collapse reminds us that, though we need multiple pathways to Parliament, we now need a reform of Senate process. In my recent Quarterly Essay, Clivosaurus, available now, I noted that we had acquired a Senate by accident — a proportional-preferential system created in 1949, with an above-the-line single vote option introduced in 1984. The latter is a recipe for scheming and carpetbagging, but it has taken three decades for that to take hold at a federal level. Now that it’s here, it ain’t going away. A net of a dozen minor parties, appealing to different constituencies — Cyclists, NeverNudes, Henry Georgists, British Israelites, Friends of Steve, Juan Posadist Spaceship Grouping — is virtually guaranteed of a Senate seat.

Interestingly, that’s the aspect of the Quarterly Essay, available now, that no one in the media has paid the slightest attention to. Why? Because there is no real concern or appetite for real democracy in Australia, and most of the “serious” media are just people phoning it in with no belief in what they do, and no real interest in whether they could put pressure on to make the system work better.

They want a smooth, undemocratic parliamentary semi-dictatorship, in which people who have started in the road to Parliament at age 16 ascend there by regular stages. We “choose” between near-identical groups of them, their progress reported by journalists who have lived in symbiosis with them for decades.

The great and unintentional effect of the current Senate crisis has been to make the contingency of the current arrangements visible — the last thing that a shared political-media elite wants. If people like Lambie can’t rise to the opportunity they’ve been given, that view of Australian political life will be confirmed. But if they can rise to the occasion, then Australians’ idea of what politics is and can be will be confirmed. At that point Clive becomes irrelevant. And whatever happens, without procedural change, we’re going to do this again. The 2017 Senate slate is going to make the current crop look like the Anglican synod, as I say in Clivosaurus, the latest Quarterly Essay, available now. The new crop will look like the bar in Star Wars.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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