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Facing an already fractious Senate crossbench splintered still further by the Section 44 turmoil, the Turnbull government finds itself in the depressingly familiar position of being unable to pass a cornerstone item of its legislative agenda.

That the obstacle to its proposed company tax cuts should be Tim Storer — a neophyte independent washed on the Senate shore amid the wreckage of the Nick Xenophon Team — will have many in the government calling to mind Paul Keating’s famed characterisation of the upper chamber as “unrepresentative swill”.

Storer’s credentials as a representative of South Australia rest upon a grand total of 189 primary votes received at the 2016 election, with the vast majority of the votes that elected him having filtered through the ticket of a party he now refuses to represent.

Compounding the government’s frustration, its latest struggle with the crossbench follows a series of election results that gave it cause to hope the minor party moment was passing.

With the Greens facing their reality check in Batman, Nick Xenophon crashing and burning in South Australia, and Jacqui Lambie’s and Cory Bernardi’s parties failing to clear their first electoral hurdles, it’s worth asking if voters have become even more fatigued with the dissolute state of the minor parties than they are with the cynicism of the majors — and if the complex Senate figurations that have defined the last two parliaments will prove in time to have been aberrations.

Certainly it’s not without precedent for a seemingly moribund two-party system to suddenly reassert itself, as it did in Britain last year, when Conservative and Labour both recorded vote shares in the forties for the first time since 1970.

However, there is as yet no hard evidence of such a phenomenon playing out here, despite the failure of reality to match minor party expectations at four state elections over the past year.

While they didn’t have much luck converting votes into seats, One Nation and SA Best bit deeply into major party vote shares in Queensland and South Australia, and One Nation federally has taken a solid chunk out of the support lost by the Coalition since the last election, according to aggregated opinion polling.

If the crossbench does get reined in at the next election, it will probably have more to do with the Senate reforms introduced before the last election than with voters flocking back to the major parties.

Malcolm Turnbull believed he was engineering just such an outcome in 2016, but he turned out to be underestimating minor parties’ capacity to sneak through the lower quota for election at a double dissolution, even without the aid of group voting tickets and preference harvesting.

However, the minor parties’ mettle under the new system will only be truly tested with the regular half-Senate election that will form part of the next federal poll either late this year or early next year.

Most of the existing crossbenchers will face re-election, having been allocated three-year rather than six-year terms after the double dissolution, including six of the nine Greens and seven of the eleven others (which would be eight out of twelve if Lucy Gichuhi hadn’t joined the Liberal Party).

The Greens would appear at risk of losing about three seats, and only a handful of other minor party players have real cause for confidence: certainly Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania, probably Derryn Hinch in Victoria and Nick Xenophon in South Australia (if they run), and we probably haven’t heard the last of Malcolm Roberts, who will lead the One Nation ticket in Queensland.

That suggests a post-election crossbench of twelve or thirteen, around half of whom will be Greens — a dramatically high number by historic standards, but well down on the existing twenty.

Better late than never, Turnbull’s landmark Senate reforms will have gone a fair part of the way towards achieving their desired objective.

Unfortunately for him, all the polling evidence suggest the beneficiary will be a Labor government led by Bill Shorten, rather than his own.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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