Opinion

Tony Windsor
Turnbull’s consensus challenge

The tribe has spoken and it is not happy with the major parties. The legislative changes to the senate that were intended to eradicate the minor parties and independents along with the calling of a double-dissolution election on a nothing issue has backfired and will no doubt haunt the political tacticians in the Liberal Party as they deal again with the reincarnated One Nation and the fact that their primary vote has plummeted to 28 per cent.

The move away from the major parties in both houses, but particularly in the senate, continues. But the majors still don’t get the message.

It should be remembered that our constitution does not mention the word party, and for the first 20 years of federation there was only one majority government. Those parliaments worked on the concept of consensus, not winner takes all.

The experience of the 2010-2013 hung parliament indicates that other than the extreme opposition to everything by Tony Abbott, and the constant barrage of vitriol from the Murdoch media, and the lemming-like behaviour of many media commentators who should have known better, the technical functioning of the parliament was a success. The negativity and “chaos” rhetoric that followed was enhanced by the stupidity of the Labor Party itself in putting leadership personality before the national interest.

And herein lies the message for Malcolm Turnbull.

If you believe that the executive of government can impose an intellectual elitism in a policy sense on the crossbench of both the house and the senate without due regard for the views of its constituencies, you will fail as Tony Abbott did in trying to impose an unfair budget in 2014. That budget – Abbott’s big failure – arrived under the guise of economic reform, when in reality it was last century’s political dogma dressed as a financial document. It was imposed. There was no consultation. This is your warning, Malcolm.

There is also a challenge for the opposition. The electorate will not accept revisiting the style Abbott used in the 43rd parliament and there will be a need for major party consensus on key economic issues. Bill Shorten has demonstrated with his negative gearing proposals during the election campaign that he is capable of dealing with difficult and not necessarily popular issues. Turnbull was the weak link in that debate; he had previously argued that all revenue issues should be on the table only to remove most of them for political expediency. That will need to change in the national interest.

The return of Pauline Hanson is an area where Turnbull and Shorten will need to show leadership to stave off populist racism and bigotry, while taking her seriously on substantive issues.

I remember Alexander Downer once berating me about how useless independents were, only to remind him that Pauline Hanson was an independent in 1996 and that she had successfully directed most of his foreign policies in subsequent years.

The argument will no doubt be put by the Murdoch press and other camp followers that a close parliament, such as the one Turnbull now has, is dysfunctional and can’t achieve real reform. This is nonsense, of course, and can be readily seen when reflecting on the previous minority government, where nearly 600 pieces of legislation achieved passage through both houses and major reforms, such as the national broadband network, National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski school funding, financial administration reforms, the establishment of the child abuse royal commission and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the water trigger and more.

So what does Malcolm Turnbull need to make all this work, particularly in the face of a one-seat majority after the election of a speaker? Turnbull will need someone like Anthony Albanese, the key negotiator in Julia Gillard’s hung parliament, to conduct good faith negotiations with the crossbench in both houses.

In the lower house, he will need such a figure to guard against a sudden shift in allegiance from one of his own now that everyone is a potential kingmaker. In the senate he will need another, for obvious reasons.

The ability to genuinely engage and negotiate will be paramount. Even though he has greater skills than Abbott, it is doubtful a severely wounded Turnbull will have the required capacity given his recently demonstrated lack of empathy with ordinary Australians during the election campaign and the fire sale of political capital since his emergence as leader.

Albanese, Simon Crean and Gillard had natural negotiating skills, and were able to give others who were not of their ilk politically the respect deserving of an elected parliamentarian.

Recent comments by former senator Glenn Lazarus regarding Turnbull’s attitude when the prime minister did not achieve the desired outcome in the senate negotiations do not augur well for the future. This will be a key point in any Turnbull success story. Does he actually want to be inclusive of others or is he acting out a role that is presentable in public?

Malcolm needs to learn that success in business doesn’t necessarily translate to success in politics. Being the boss man in a merchant bank doesn’t mean he is a leader of people.

Repeating the story of his “underprivileged” childhood doesn’t ring true for ordinary voters when the body language is condescending and elitist. Showing he really cares for others will be his greatest challenge.

Everyone has a view as to how they would handle the current political scene. My take is that the prime minister should bring in to focus the most immediate issue facing the nation, one that seems beyond the capacity of the adversarial system that operates between the major parties: economic reform. Unlikely though it seems to political orthodoxies, it may be that the economic leadership required comes from the crossbench.

Given that there is little for anyone to claim as a mandate, surely there is an opportunity to see what consensus can achieve. What if a mix of revenue measures from all sides were actually put on the table in the national interest? Things such as Labor’s negative gearing proposals; the high-end superannuation savings proposed by the Greens and others; the abandonment of the 10-year horizon for big business tax cuts; genuine investigation into offshore tax avoidance, legal or otherwise; and, heaven forbid, some degree of revisiting John Howard’s $30 billion debt bomb from 2007, when the then prime minister, in a desperate attempt to win the unwinnable election, went after voters with massive tax cuts that Kevin Rudd guilelessly matched.

Could this parliament surprise many by doing as the founding fathers determined all those years ago, and for the first 20 years of federation upheld, by achieving consensus in both chambers about the future of all of us? Or will it be about those who received just 28 per cent of the primary vote, trying to impose on the other 72 per cent their will under some form of fictitious mandate?

It’s your choice, Malcolm. Or it should be. You could scrounge around in your own party for a mandate, or find one on the floor of the parliament.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Consensus sensibility". 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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