Richard Farmer. Controlling the Senate.

May 12, 2016

There a couple of reasons to take little notice of what Labor, Liberals, Nationals, Greens and other assorted politicians say between now and 2 July.

The first is that election politics is rarely about telling the truth. Normally it is about telling people things that they think people want to hear. The skilful politician monitors public opinion, determines what people believe, packages the public’s best lines and sells them back to them. It will always be thus as the primary concern of a politician is winning.

The second reason is that even a political leader clearly winning the House of Representatives can guarantee nothing. The Australian bicameral system of government means that an elected Prime Minister is subject to the whims of a Senate his party almost certainly will not control. The best Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten can promise us in 2016 are the things they they will do if the Greens, Nick Xenophon and whoever else gets a Senate guernsey, will allow it.

Already in this campaign Messrs Turnbull and Shorten are asserting that they will not be entering into any form of coalition with the Greens should the parliament be hung. That’s a meaningless statement if ever I’ve heard one. Whether there’s a formal agreement or not, deals will be done in the unlikely event of no one having a House of Representatives majority. In the case of the Senate, the government can either make an arrangement with a selection of crossbenchers, as Julia Gillard did with the Greens, or suffer the frustrations of defeated legislation as was chosen by Tony Abbott and Turnbull.

The shape of legislation over the next three years will depend on the exact composition of the Senate crossbench. Until that result is known election promises should be regarded as nothing more than a broad statement of possible intentions. Neither the Liberal-Nationals nor Labor can guarantee anything. And that’s before all those bold assumptions in the economic forecasts that supposedly underpin those promises meet the reality of an uncertain world.

The retiring Senate had 33 Coalition senators, 25 Labor, 10 Greens and eight others – three independents and one each representing the Xenophon Group, the Palmer United Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, Family First and the Australian Motorist Enthusiast Party. The rationale behind changes to the Senate voting system sponsored by the Coalition and supported by the Greens and Xenophon, was to cull most of those minor parties and independents.

At an  election for half the Senate that theory probably works but this ballot is for the lot with only half the normal quota required in the six states. The final position in each state will go to someone with five per cent of the vote or less. Some of the odds and sods will disappear but some will not and new ones might yet appear.

Nick Xenophon looks certain to drag at least one colleague in behind him in South Australia. Tasmania has a long history of liking Senate mavericks from Reg “Spot” Turnbull elected in 1961 to Brian Harradine who was in the Senate for 30 years from 1975. Jacqui Lambi would fit in nicely with that duo for unconventionality. If name recognition counts for anything – and in politics it probably does – then Glenn Lazarus must be in with a chance in Queensland even if he did once play State of Origin for New South Wales.

It really is something of a lottery but on my ticket I’ll buy 31 Liberals (2 less than now), Labor 30 (an increase of 5), the Greens down one on 9, with the Xenophon group and others making up the balance with 6 (a couple less than the number retiring). Any result close to that and predictions about what a government will achieve become difficult indeed.

Little wonder that the political pundits pontificate more about who will win the election horse race than analysing options about unknowable policy outcomes. Depressing it might be but inevitable when the two major runners feel obliged to belittle almost all of their opponent’s proposals and the minor starters refuse to accept the idea of a winner having a mandate.

How much better it would be if Don Chipp’s Democrats were still the holders of the balance of power with their mantra of “keeping the bastards honest” and a commitment to ensuring that an elected government kept its promises. Or that there was a major party leader with the daring of a Paul Keating who warned voters before an election that Labor would not vote in the Senate to defeat a Coalition’s proposals for a GST.

Alas the likelihood of those in opposition accepting again any view of there being a mandate disappeared when the Democrats actually did what their founding father Chipp promised when founding them. Voting for another version of a GST promised by a John Howard led government was the prelude to the Democrats fading away.

Richard Farmer is a journalist and businessman.

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