The government’s agenda hinges on the crossbench from the WA senate election re-run. A report on its poor attempts to negotiate. By Sophie Morris.

Minor-party senators need deft negotiation

Tony Abbott launching the Liberal senate campaign in WA.

The day after the senate polls were declared last year, Tony Abbott sent David Leyonhjelm a congratulatory text message. Since then, Leyonhjelm has had no further correspondence from the prime minister and only limited contact with the federal government.

It may seem a no-brainer that the Liberal Democratic Party senator-elect for New South Wales would back the government on most legislation. But the free-market, small government, pro-gun politician warns his vote should not be taken for granted. He tells The Saturday Paper he has a significant reservation about the detail of the carbon tax repeal, for instance.

“The Liberal Party doesn’t have a culture of working with other parties. They tolerate the Nationals but that’s about where it ends,” Leyonhjelm says.

“I think they’re going to have to discover a talent for negotiation – the Americans call it schmoozing – otherwise they’re going to discover the senate is not as friendly as they assume it will be.”

Since last September’s federal election, the government has learnt some of the crossbench senate votes it assumed it could rely on to pass legislation may prove elusive.

As Western Australia returns to the polls to decide the final make-up of the federal senate, after last year’s result was voided by the High Court, the Coalition’s relationship with some of the crucial crossbenchers has deteriorated. Hinging on this weekend’s outcome is much of the government’s legislative agenda.

In the days leading up to the April 5 election, simmering hostilities between the Coalition and the Palmer United Party erupted in a war of words between leaders, boding ill for future cooperation.

Clive Palmer’s party already has two senate seats – Jacqui Lambie from Tasmania and Glenn Lazarus from Queensland – as well as an alliance of sorts with the Australian Motoring Enthusiast’s Ricky Muir, from Victoria, who has kept a low profile since the election.

The mining magnate outspent the major parties in WA in an attempt to secure another senate spot and lock in a balance of power role. 

Abbott accused Palmer of “spending like a drunken sailor” and trying to “buy a seat in parliament through advertising”. The PUP has run advertisements accusing the Coalition and Labor of “taking bread out of the mouths of WA babies” by shortchanging the state on GST revenue, although it is unclear how he would remedy this.

1 . Carbon tax block

Leyonhjelm, who left the Liberals in the 1990s following John Howard’s crackdown on guns in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, says that Labor is “more approachable” and has a better track record of managing crossbenchers and securing their support.

He had lunch late last year with the government leader in the senate, Eric Abetz, and has also met with Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese. But he notes that the Coalition has not yet arranged for a contact person to liaise with him on upcoming legislation and other issues.

The government’s election promise to repeal the carbon tax, for example, may hit a stumbling block in Leyonhjelm’s flat rejection of any increase in taxes.

The government intends to keep planned carbon tax compensation, but there is a round of tax cuts that were due to go ahead in July 2015. Labor had, in government, decided they were no longer needed when it brought forward the floating price. But the Coalition has wrapped up the abolition of these tax cuts in its repeal bills, which were rejected by the senate in March.

“We will never vote for an increase in taxes or a reduction in liberty and we mean it,” Leyonhjelm says.

Among the crossbenchers who will sit in the senate from July 1, Leyonhjelm has perhaps the most clearly articulated and consistent views. His libertarian beliefs have been expressed in newspaper columns. But even he may present some surprises. He bristled recently when he heard Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who has not consulted him, claiming crossbench support for the government’s agenda. “They cannot take me totally for granted,” he says.

The re-run of the bungled WA senate election presents a test for all parties involved. It will provide an indication of how the government is travelling after its first six months in power and whether its blinkered focus on repealing the carbon and mining taxes – issues that seem tailor-made for resource-rich WA – is resonating or not.

For Labor, it is a test of whether it is seen as an effective opposition under the leadership of Bill Shorten, who asked the voters of WA to “restore balance to the senate” in order to “keep the Abbott government honest”. For the Greens, it will be a sign of whether the poor showing at the Tasmanian election reflects a general decline or a nadir. Scott Ludlam will fight to retain his seat.

2 . Crossbench numbers

Since the introduction of proportional representation in the senate in 1949, there has been only a handful of occasions when the government of the day has had an absolute majority in the upper house: twice under Robert Menzies, for two terms of the Fraser government, and once, from 2005, under John Howard.

Navigating a hostile or unpropitiously aligned senate is part of the reality of governing in Australia. By the time he won control of the senate in his fourth term, Howard had become adept at this art, having personally driven negotiations at critical junctures on the GST and the sale of Telstra. 

But never before has the government had to deal with such a fragmented and unpredictable crossbench in the upper house – regardless of the weekend’s result.

Following last year’s election, some in the Coalition felt confident they had secured quasi-control of the 76-member senate, despite much of the commentary focusing on the crowded and colourful crossbench. After the first count, the Coalition had 33 votes of its own and there was an assumption it could count on the support of six crossbenchers: three from the Palmer United Party plus Muir, Leyonhjelm and Family First’s Bob Day.

Keeping all these conservatively inclined crossbenchers on side would require effort and delicate management but seemed plausible.

Since then, there have been signs that these senators may not be so easily corralled. 

Even before the blow-up over Palmer’s WA campaign, the mining magnate was already proving capricious. His party’s senators are yet to enter parliament but from his seat in the house of representatives he has sent some very mixed signals on the government’s signature bills.

He wants the carbon tax repealed, but argues this should be retrospective. He has also made his support for the mining tax repeal contingent on continuing support for veterans’ orphans, which had been funded by the tax and would end with it. 

The first count in the WA senate election debacle gave the Liberals three spots, Labor two and the PUP one. A recount changed this to three for the Liberals, and one each for Labor, the Greens and the Sports Party.

After it emerged that the electoral commission had lost more than 1300 votes, a High Court decision in February forced an election re-run, throwing six seats into doubt and thrusting upon the 1.4 million voters of WA the task of choosing, via a highly unpredictable voting system, who will wield power in the upper house.

The fresh election could entrench Palmer’s power by making essential his party’s support for any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. Even if the PUP does not win a seat in WA, the government will still need to court their votes.

Or it could bolster the position of Labor and the Greens, who had performed badly in WA last September. If conservative senators secure fewer spots in WA, it could force the government to contend with independent Nick Xenophon and the Democratic Labor Party’s John Madigan, who already sit on the crossbench.

3 . Outflanked on the right

In recent months, Madigan has noticed that both the Coalition and Labor have been more forthcoming with offers of briefings on legislation and issues.

But he is more often frustrated than pleased with the way the major parties deal with him, citing an incident in the last parliamentary sitting week when he says the government slashed 25 minutes off a 90-minute slot that had been allocated for him and Xenophon to discuss government procurement and jobs.

“This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I just note them down. The list is growing.”

Such grievances may seem petty but much can hinge on them in a precarious senate.

Family First senator-elect Bob Day, who has also met with Abetz, was previously a Liberal candidate and admits he has a lot of common ground with the government. He says the other new crossbenchers do, too. “We all come from fairly traditional conservative backgrounds. We’re definitely not left-leaners,” he says.

Day and Leyonhjelm are both successful businesspeople and will occupy an interesting position. They will sometimes outflank the government from the right on economic issues, giving voice to views that some Liberals would share but cannot publicly declare because they clash with Coalition policy.

Day’s view on the Coalition’s Direct Action climate policy – that it is a “total waste of time and money” – is one example. His dismissal of Abbott’s generous paid parental leave policy – “I haven’t been able to find anyone who supports it” – another.

Day also hopes to flush out some Liberal supporters by pursuing a private member’s bill on the introduction of voluntary voting.

Xenophon’s relationship with the new crossbenchers may have an awkward start. Concerned that the gaming of byzantine preference flow rules saw some senators elected with less than 1 per cent of the primary vote, he has proposed optional preferential voting reforms. They would have prevented most of his crossbench colleagues from taking their seats.

Unlike the micro-parties, Xenophon was elected on first preferences securing 25.7 per cent of the primary vote in South Australia – close to twice the number of votes needed.

He realises it is unlikely the government will rush to tackle voting reform if it could jeopardise the chances of winning support for its legislation.

“I don’t think the government has got the ticker to take that on, because it will upset the new senators,” he says.

Whatever the outcome in WA, the lead-up to this extraordinary ballot has shown that Abbott and his government will need to demonstrate diplomacy and dexterity in dealing with a senate in which the only certainty may be surprises.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "WA and the art of ‘schmoozing’".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.