Opinion

A word of advice to the senate’s wildcards

Australians have become disillusioned with our political processes. They see political parties that have moved from philosophical origins to become little more than management teams vying for power. They see limited real vision for the nation. They see corrupt activity and dodgy relationships becoming part of the norm. They see a new Bastard Class that has grown up in Canberra, a coterie of major party politicians and lobby groups and elements of the press that has eroded confidence in politics.

With this growing concern, there is an opportunity for the newly elected senators on the crossbench to overcome the commonly held view that most of them are only there because of electoral aberrations – an opportunity to prove the bastards wrong. They are here not just because of byzantine preference flows, but because the public is turning its back on the major parties. 

Time will give its verdict on the motives and integrity of this group, but if I were advising them I would do so in the following context:

Crossbenchers, your very first agenda item should be the establishment of a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption. You are uniquely placed to demand this, and if you all came together to legislate for a federal anti-corruption body it would roll straight down the middle of public opinion. Too long Canberra has been without such a body. Much of the faith lost in politics could be repaired by the creation of a mechanism to hold politicians to account. The creation of such a body would frame with seriousness everything else you do on the crossbench.

As senators, you have a critical role in our parliamentary system. The fact that Australians in increasing numbers are voting differently in the senate to the House of Representatives verifies voter expectations. If you revisit the origins of the upper house, you will see you were elected to do a number of things. First, you were elected to represent your state – its voters are your constituency. That is not to say that major federal issues should be trifled with to the detriment of the nation, but the basic reason the senate exists is to represent the states’ interests, be a house of review for the legislation passed by the House of Representatives, to initiate legislation of its own and be a watchdog on the excesses of government.

Those senators who have been elected with relatively low primary votes and surfed the preference wave will be criticised and pilloried by some as anything from unrepresentative swill to illegitimate occupiers of these important positions. You are legitimate players in the system you were elected in, in exactly the same way as your party colleagues, and you have every right to be there. The “political classes” in parliament and in some sections of the press will hound you on this issue – ignore the bastards and get on with your work.

One thing I learnt from 22 years in parliament, and from having been in two hung parliaments, is that the decision-makers, the powerful, the experienced politicians, the elite, the urgers and shakers are not necessarily smart people. Many come from very limited backgrounds in terms of life experience. Many are schooled in political “science”. Many come from the bowels of their particular party or the union movement, where the skills of political manipulation and self-service are an art form. To you, many of these people will seem to have enormous knowledge of parliamentary processes, but at the end of the day, you are there to represent people who don’t have these skills – the public.

Thirty per cent of the electorate is voting for groups other than the major parties. They are doing this for a reason. They don’t trust the system and hence are searching for alternatives – the West Australian election was a classic example. Both left and right political persuasions deserted their major parties. Why wouldn’t West Australians, in the unique position of a senate special election, vote Liberal to be part of the governing team? Or ALP to support the alternative government? Because they don’t trust the bastards.

You have an enormous opportunity to ensure that “trust” is not lost, to prove that ordinary people without a “political background” can in fact make credible decisions and come to logical conclusions that can be explained to your state and the wider electorate. The bastards won’t want you to do that because they are petrified the 30 per cent who are searching for better alternatives will grow and provide a better system than the one with which they are presently content. The manipulators and urgers are very happy with the status quo and they will see the new upper house as a threat.

Some of the bastards in the press and talkback radio will condemn you, fluster you, demand that decisions need to be made quickly. During the recent hung parliament, my advice to Julia Gillard was, “If you try to rush me on major issues I’ll vote ‘no’.”

Don’t believe the rubbish that issues need to be rushed through parliament. That is always code for ill-thought-out policy. Don’t listen to the bastards when they tell you the senate has only days left in a particular session and a raft of bills that need to be passed. Tell them to extend the sittings. The public won’t object; the public expect you to do your job.

You are a member of a hung senate. The government of the day does not have a majority. Take your time: don’t be bullied by Abbott, Shorten or Abetz. If you need more resources, get them. Use the library. Talk to the clerks. Get it right and above all include the electorate in the methodology you are using. Don’t be afraid to tell Alan Jones you don’t fully understand an issue but will do your homework. Don’t be bullied by those destroyers of democratic process – tell the bastards to get lost.

The Clive Palmer group will have a significant role in the next senate. Clive Palmer is no fool, although many will want him and his Palmer United Party senators to be seen as idiots. Above all, this group has the capacity to prove the bastards wrong. The bastards are expecting this group to be self-serving, particularly towards Clive’s business interests, and to be novices in a world of political strategy and propaganda.

So far, in the House of Representatives Clive Palmer has wrong-footed the bastards. Time will tell the outcomes of the new senate and how serious this group is about the nation. This group will come under the most scrutiny – legitimately so – as it has the capacity, if credible, to encourage voters away from the two-party dominance in our lower house.

My advice to the Palmer group and the other new senators is to talk to others in the senate and crossbenchers in the House of Representatives. You may not agree with the Greens, Nick Xenophon, Labor or the Liberals, but don’t shut anyone out in terms of your deliberations.

No doubt Eric Abetz, government leader in the senate, will have an unenviable task in negotiating with the crossbench. When he plays his game in the press about how difficult it all is, present him with his statements on how good a job Senator Brian Haradine did in Tasmania. In the senate, you are there for your state; they will elect you if you show you are serious.

Many years ago the Democrats under Don Chipp had a slogan: “Keep the Bastards Honest.” The senate crossbench in conjunction with the House of Representatives crossbench could come together to drive a federal ICAC through the parliament. That would be a legacy of which any senator could be justly proud.

At the moment, many in the community are viewing the new crossbench senators sceptically, due to the aberrations of the electoral system. It is up to you to prove the bastards wrong. If you can do that with integrity and transparency you could do our tainted system proud.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "A word of advice to the senate’s wildcards". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.

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