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As one of eight crossbench senators set to wield enormous power come July, Ballarat’s John Madigan is ready to stand and be counted. By Sophie Morris.

DLP senator John Madigan happy to be the family guy

Democratic Labour Party senator John Madigan speaks during senate question time.
Credit: AAPIMAGE

The cot in the corner of John Madigan’s busy parliamentary waiting room speaks volumes about his politics. His rhetoric is all about supporting families, “unashamedly pro-life” views, finding self-worth through hard work.

Madigan knows about hard work. A blacksmith by trade, he now finds people lining up to get in his ear whenever he’s in Canberra. The Democratic Labour Party senator from Ballarat will be one of eight crossbench senators with the power to decide the fate of government legislation when the new senate convenes from July.

For its bills to pass through the senate, the Coalition will need six of the eight in their corner. But already the government’s first major test – the budget – is on shaky ground. And Madigan’s initial response to it provided the Coalition with little comfort. He sees its proposals as “hostile” to families.

Being family-friendly is Madigan’s thing, hence the cot. His own two children are now school age, but a staff member has a baby who sometimes comes into the office. “The cot’s there for when the little one is having a bad day,” shrugs Madigan. “I mean, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?”

But while such caring flexibility may make Madigan seem like the boss from heaven, accusations of unfair dismissal suggest that not all who have worked for him would agree.

Two former staff have taken their complaints to the Fair Work Commission – one has reached a confidential settlement, the other is still in train – but Madigan won’t discuss the cases.

“My conscience is clear,” he says, calmly, sitting in his Canberra office, where the walls are adorned with posters from the Ballarat Courier, carrying headlines about the potatoes protest and the tractor blockade.

“There’s people who made claims that are yet to be dealt with. I’m not going to prejudice anything by talking about it.”

Other people are talking about it, though, and speculating that the blacksmith and boilermaker from Ballarat who was elected in 2010 with 2.3 per cent of the primary vote may not cope with the extra pressure come July.

“I’m as up to the task as anybody else in that place,” he says indignantly, adding that he has never had the luxury of just voting along party lines without grappling first with the detail of legislation. 

Another source familiar with his office says he made poor staffing choices early but things are now running more smoothly.

It’s almost three years since Madigan joined the senate, becoming the first DLP representative in federal parliament since 1974. But this throwback to another era is still a loner in Canberra and resentful of the two major parties, accusing them both of “bad behaviour”. 

He names only one friend in parliament. “Nick Xenophon and I don’t agree on everything but at least he’s honest and straightforward,” he says. 

Xenophon also sings Madigan’s praises, describing him as reliable, genuine and hardworking. 

“He’s actually quite a shy person but that should not be mistaken for lack of burning passion for how he feels about jobs and people having the dignity of work. That really shines through,” says the South Australian independent.

The two crossbenchers have forged an unlikely bond that will no doubt blossom further when the pressure increases from July. 

They are at odds on some social issues – notably gay marriage and abortion – but share an interest in the future of manufacturing and a commitment to frugality and budget airfares. 

When Madigan recently visited Adelaide, Xenophon sought to expand his culinary horizons by taking him to a gyros joint. “He was a steak and chips man but now he eats souvlaki,” says Xenophon. “He baulked at a spicy curry but I’m working on that.”

Careful deliberations

On the phone, Madigan can be talkative, sometimes giving long-winded answers that, whether by accident or design, skirt around an issue, imparting a sense of his thinking without tethering him to a fixed position. Not really a bad tactic for a crossbencher.

In person, he comes across as courteous but taciturn. He speaks slowly, methodically and says this is how he intends to go about his deliberations. In this parliament, he has backed the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, but not the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and has expressed reservations about the Coalition’s Direct Action climate policy.

In the days after Treasurer Joe Hockey unveiled his budget, Madigan received an email from the Coalition nominating a contact person who could brief him if needed. The senator preferred to first trawl through the details himself, drawing on advice from a retired academic.

“I’m very concerned about the potential effects on families, the elderly, people with disabilities,” he says. “With the demise of manufacturing, what is the government’s policy for jobs? We can’t all be barristers and doctors. Somebody has got to create the wealth. People need jobs for a sense of self-worth and I don’t see that being addressed in the budget.”

It’s not as punchy as Xenophon’s description of the budget as “mean, nasty and dumb” or as Clive Palmer’s immediate rejection of key measures on behalf of the four senators aligned with him. Neither, however, is it encouraging for the Abbott government.

As part of his budget sales pitch, Hockey cited the advice of 72-year-old self-funded retiree “Margaret from Langwarrin” in Victoria, who told the treasurer to be true to himself and make changes for the long term.

Madigan counters with his own anecdote about an old lady from Victoria. Indeed, when he talks policy he constantly brings it back to the personal life stories of the individuals he has met and the pressures they face. 

“An elderly lady in Warrnambool came up to me yesterday and made a very valuable point,” he says. “She said: ‘I’m quite comfortable because I’m in a fortunate position but I know others, contemporaries of mine, who aren’t in the same position and I’m concerned for them.’ How do we balance the fact we’re not all as fortunate as others?”

Then he tells me about the 48-year-old father of three in a physical job on a base wage of $43,000 plus $10,000 overtime, who worries about plans to increase the pension age to 70.

These are the stories Madigan listens to. Anyone wishing to win his support for legislation would do well to argue its merits at the micro level, where politics meets the personal.

Lobbyists seeking to sway him with largesse will receive short shrift. Early on he blacklisted one who had the temerity to ask which football team he supported, presumably a prelude to offering tickets.

The other politician whom he respects is the late senator Brian Harradine, whose funeral he attended in April. He describes the Tasmanian independent as “a good man and a wise man”. 

The two spoke sometimes on the phone. He’s not about to disclose what they discussed but it’s a fair bet their shared abhorrence of abortion was mentioned. In a speech to the Sydney Institute last February, Madigan said he felt “utmost disgust” for politicians who touted pro-life views when it suited but failed, once elected, to push for changes.

Already, he has made a start, introducing a private member’s bill last year to remove Medicare funding for abortions “procured on the basis of gender selection”. He sought unsuccessfully to flush out like-minded senators in the major parties. Without their support, his bill was doomed to fail.

Pro-life views are clearly a central theme for Madigan and his party. Yet he insists he won’t follow Harradine’s lead in trading support for other legislation for restrictions on abortion.

“The fact of the matter is you can legislate anything but unless you win the hearts and minds of people on an issue and logically explain your position, you don’t change anything,” he says.

No fear

It is an understatement to say the post-July senate is shaping as a headache for the Abbott government, so much so that there has already been double dissolution talk.

Madigan says this does not faze him and will not influence his decision-making. “What will be, will be,” he says. “I’m not going to base my decisions out of fear. I want to give things the best consideration I can. I’m not prepared to horsetrade my corner post, so to speak.” 

There speaks a smithy who has felt the heat of the forge and reckons he can survive the political furnace.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "The family guy". Subscribe here.

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