There’s a different skillset for being a good senator compared to an MP in the House of Reps. Members of the lower house, of course, have constituents to attend to — a full-time job even before you tack on other roles like being a minister or shadow minister. But senators have a lot more committee work, and it’s more important, because the government doesn’t chair non-legislative committees, and chairs are expected to work a lot more collegiately. Effective senators are often the ones who work hard behind the scenes, and collaborate with senators from other parties to get outcomes that aren’t necessarily confined to legislation.
The choice of best politician of 2017 was, ultimately, an easy one. It is Dean Smith who has effected a major, and thoroughly belated, change to Australia’s marriage laws to end the discrimination that, until recently, both sides of politics supported. Other Liberal backbenchers played important roles in agitating for change, in this term of parliament and the previous one. Ministers like Christopher Pyne pushed the issue hard as well. But Dean Smith did the work. He put together a bill that addressed the issues identified in a near-unanimous (Eric Abetz was the only dissenter) senate committee report on the government’s marriage plebiscite bill released last year. That was the bill he released when he and other marriage equality proponents in Liberal ranks again ignited the issue in August. It is the bill that, in substance, is the one that will become law.
Smith has doggedly pursued marriage equality within his party since his own shift on the issue in the wake of the death of Tori Johnson in the Lindt Cafe siege (he admits he has been a latecomer to the issue when others have pushed for far longer). He has struggled, he says, to maintain his conviction when the majority of his party opposed it. He has battled the hostility of homophobes and deadenders, and the reluctance of a party leadership that saw only a potential for division in the issue. He has had to be patient, to overcome the hurdle of the delay mechanism established by Tony Abbott and then backed by Malcolm Turnbull. In the end, his patience and doggedness was rewarded.
Smith’s qualities haven’t only been displayed on marriage equality. His chairmanship of the underappreciated Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit has seen a significant shift by that committee to become an important watchdog on the public service. Smith, like the Australian National Audit Office, has grown tired of the same mistakes and problems being revealed time and time again within the public service by the auditors, and he is determined to harry bureaucrats until they start implementing the recommendations they say they will, and stop the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Between Smith and Auditor-General Grant Hehir, the public service now faces much more vigorous scrutiny at a time when the reports about incompetence and poor judgment continue to mount up.
Smith has been the best of senators, at a time when cynicism toward mainstream politicians is greater than ever.
In a government as chaotic, ill-disciplined and at times circus-like as this one, Mathias Cormann stands out as a rock of competence and judgment, quietly and loyally doing his jobs of Finance Minister and deputy leader in the Senate, and playing the role of one of the government’s chief spokesmen. As in many organisations, his competence is punished with more work — he is the human scrabble blank of the ministry, filling in regularly whenever other ministers fall by the wayside or have to take leave. A few more MPs and senators like Cormann, and this government would be very different indeed. We need Skynet to build a few more and dispatch them back to us.
Ok so we’re going for an all-unrepresentative swill set of gongs but Penny Wong has had another outstanding year as Opposition leader in the senate and watching her in estimates was — to the extent it is possible in estimates — a pleasure. John Faulkner and Robert Ray in the Howard years are the gold standard for estimates performers, but Wong is nearly their equal, and watching more junior Labor senators stumble their way round issues is to be reminded of how difficult it is to do what Wong does seemingly so effortlessly. Witty, forensic and tough, Wong scares and rattles her opponents, and they don’t like it.