The Australian’s lead editorial today took a strong position in terms of transparency of intentions for the minor parties after the July 2 double dissolution election, declaring:
“Given the closeness of opinion polls, other minor parties such as the Nick Xenophon Team and potential independent MPs should also make it clear where they stand in the event of a hung parliament.”
This is a fair call. If successful in ousting Kevin Andrews from the safe Liberal seat of Menzies, I’m happy to commit to providing confidence for the retention of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. However, if Tony Abbott returned as Liberal leader, there would be no commitment. The only problem with this early declaration strategy is that unconditional support removes a balance-of-power MP’s power to negotiate policy and budgetary benefits for their electorate, party and personal beliefs. Look at the way Tony Abbott offered Andrew Wilkie $1 billion for a teaching hospital in Hobart during the 2010 post-election negotiations over who would form government. Therefore, aspiring crossbenchers need to also spell out their negotiating position. In the case of Menzies, from an electorate point of view, it will be a $50 million commitment to a wide variety of long-overdue local government capital works in a safe seat that has long been neglected by Canberra. The detail will be spelled out in a submission to the City of Manningham draft budget before the May 26 deadline. In terms of major infrastructure, it will be a commitment to lift the ridiculously low share of federal infrastructure funding coming to Victoria, particularly by supporting Doncaster Rail and the completion of the Western Ring Road from Greensborough to Ringwood, which has long been the RACV’s highest priority infrastructure project in Melbourne. And from a national policy or legislative position, it will be an early conscience vote on marriage equality, campaign finance reform and the establishment of a federal independent anti-corruption body. Interestingly, Friday’s state council meeting of the Municipal Association of Victoria endorsed this City of Melbourne motion backing a federal ICAC -- but only after president Bill McArthur used his casting vote to break a dramatic 50-50 tie. This same motion will now go to the peak national decision-making body for councils, namely the Australian Local Government Association’s national general assembly in Canberra on June 20-21. There’s a lot of hedging of bets so far during this campaign on the question of post-election alliances. Labor leader Bill Shorten is ridiculously suggesting he won’t even talk to the Greens in a hung Parliament situation. Christine Wallace was right in The Saturday Paper when she wrote that a Liberal strategy of preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor in progressive inner-city seats would make it very difficult for Labor to govern in its own right. Adam Bandt is being perfectly logical saying the Greens would only work with Labor, and Bill Shorten is clearly in denial hoping not to bring back memories of the 2010-13 Labor-Greens alliance. Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger's Greens preference strategy is clearly designed to cause as much progressive in-fighting as possible while also maximising community fears of excessive Green power in a minority Shorten government. The position of Nick Xenophon on all of these questions is perhaps the most interesting one to watch. The Nick Xenophon Team’s preference allocations in half a dozen South Australian seats will potentially determine the outcome but the kingmaker Senator told the ABC's Fran Kelly on Friday that neutrality through open tickets is his preferred option at this early stage of the process. However, after 18 years in state and federal parliaments, Xenophon has a known voting record. Critics, such as Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, claim that he has voted with the Greens more often than any other crossbencher during the Abbott-Turnbull years. However, that partly reflects Xenophon’s strong governance and transparency positions, something he shares with the Greens. Xenophon has given these written commitments on penalty rates. As Labor is discovering today, it is very difficult to simultaneously support an independent umpire and the retention of higher penalties on Sunday than Saturday when the independent umpire might very well say that there should be one rate for the whole weekend. Xenophon is trying to do the same thing when he wrote to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation in March and said:
“NXT support Fair Work Commission as the independent industrial umpire. NXT does not support any changes to legislation that would in any way facilitate a reduction in penalty rates for your members. Further, we would actively oppose and campaign against any such changes.”
Preference allocations will provide an important indication of where someone will lean after the election, but pragmatism and negotiation are also big drivers in determining what appears on a how-to-vote card. For instance, Tony Windsor can’t beat Barnaby Joyce in New England without Labor Party preferences, but will Labor try to extract a high preference allocation from Windsor plus a commitment to repeat his 2010 decision to back a Labor minority government? Windsor says he won’t enter into any formal agreements this time, but he will need to provide confidence to one side or the other to enable someone to form government if he’s one of the swing votes. In a conservative electorate, if Windsor commits to back Turnbull, his primary vote will probably go up. But can he simultaneously do that while telling voters to preference the Greens and Labor ahead of Turnbull’s deputy prime minister? These are delicate balancing acts where hard calls and trade-offs will have to be made. For now, we are in the posturing phase, but it won’t be easy for anyone to sit on the fence when challenged by voters on polling day. *Stephen Mayne is an independent City of Melbourne councillor who is standing as an independent against Kevin Andrews in Menzies. He was not paid for this item.