Paul Bongiorno
Heavy crossbench to bear

Thirty-four is the number and it has turned federal parliamentary politics on its head. After an agonising month of counting and distributing preferences for both houses of the parliament, the Australian Electoral Commission has tabulated the biggest shakeout in the two-party system since 1910, with a record number of members and senators who owe their allegiance to neither  the government nor the opposition.

Voters returned 16 members to the crossbench in the house of representatives and 18 in the senate. While the Albanese government has a slender majority in the lower house – 77 of the 151-seat chamber – it falls a long way short in the senate. With only 26 senators out of 76, it would need 13 others to vote with it for legislation to be passed.

The combinations to get there make for some fascinating scenarios. The temptation is to assume the easy option, assigning fellow travellers on the progressive side of politics to support Labor. That would be the 12 Greens and the new independent from the ACT, David Pocock. If Pocock isn’t persuaded, there would be the option of turning to Jacqui Lambie and her new colleague, Tammy Tyrrell.

No one imagines that Pauline Hanson and her sidekick, Malcolm Roberts, would be quick to vote with Labor. Nor would the new United Australia Party senator from Victoria, Ralph “Deej” Babet. He is a conspiracy theorist from the “freedom” anti-vax right.

Based on the indications we have so far from the Peter Dutton-led Coalition, his 32 senators would be urged to make life as difficult as possible for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. But of course, if the opposition backed the government on some issues, the crossbench would be sidelined.

The fact is non-government parties command all the attention when they hold the balance of power and their votes are crucial. In this regard, the crossbench in the lower house would appear to have lost its potency. But Ben Oquist, former chief of staff to the Greens’ founding leader, Bob Brown, says the sheer numbers mean this parliament will change the nature of the public and policy debate. He thinks it will be a “very noisy” parliament in the sense that all these disparate voices will be jostling to make sure they are heard. The public interest in the new teal independents is already obvious, with no shortage of interviews on radio and television.

Albanese told his first government party room meeting that he wants to change the way politics works in this country. “We need to be more inclusive,” he said. And, “we can do this”.

The leader of the house, Tony Burke, has already had a meeting and phone conversations with Warringah independent Zali Steggall. She is urging a revamp of the standing orders, regulating the way the parliament operates, with more respect shown for the right of non-government members to contribute to debates and initiate legislation.

Burke has signalled that he accepts the numbers demand the independents be allocated more questions. He is yet to finalise his revamp and is inviting all 16 crossbenchers to attend a meeting with him before he does. But the government’s chief parliamentary tactician is baulking at abandoning so-called “Dorothy Dixers”, where government backbenchers get to ask prearranged questions. They are the ones where, according to Steggall, the government tells us how good it is and how bad their opponents are. It certainly became tedious in the previous parliament.

The Liberals are wary of the government’s willingness to play footsie with the independents, fearing it will come at their expense. The new manager of opposition business, Paul Fletcher, is unimpressed with Albanese’s claims he will take parliament and its procedures more seriously. When the government released its sitting schedule with just eight weeks allocated until the end of the year, Fletcher said it was “remarkably light on” and accused the government of a “go-slow”.

Fletcher seems oblivious to the contribution his own side of politics made to the very sparse record of parliament sitting this year. It smacks of negativity for the sake of it.

But with a new government in charge after nine years and with a significant rearrangement of departments – especially in the climate and energy areas – the pace of settling in behind the scenes has been furious, despite Covid-19 depleting the ranks in key offices and the many staff vacancies still to be filled.

Fletcher should be careful what he wishes for. Albanese is very comfortable in parliament and was a successful leader of the house in prime minister Julia Gillard’s minority government. One Labor insider says the government doubts if “Dutton and Fletcher are even aware there are standing orders, let alone what they do”.

This observation is fed by the way in which Morrison and his ministers refused every attempt to suspend standing orders to debate hot-button issues during the last parliament. “They were too scared,” is a government view. “There’s no one with Christopher Pyne’s knowledge of the standing orders or tactical smarts.”

Albanese is phlegmatic about the situation. He says the parliament “can be a funny place at times”. In what must be the understatement of the year, he said “sometimes people will vote in ways that you sort of scratch your head”. He is still smarting from the fact the Greens voted with the Coalition in 2009 to reject the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme. He says, “From time to time you’ll get political parties vote in ways that are unexpected.”

On cue, Peter Dutton committed his senators to voting against Labor’s proposal to legislate its 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030. Curiously, he seemed not to have any particular difficulty with the target – suggesting a range of possibilities. It was just that legislating it could cause hardship for businesses and home owners. Clearly he is leaving open the option of reigniting the climate wars as an immediate hip-pocket issue. It’s straight out of former opposition leader Tony Abbott’s playbook.

What is instructive here is Dutton’s refusal to legislate, “because that was the position we took to the Australian people and millions of people voted for us on that basis”. But his unilateral, backward-looking declaration has ignited murmurs of revolt in his ranks. The residual moderates have told several newspapers they may cross the floor to signal to Liberal voters who deserted for the climate action independents that they get the message.

Others in the decimated Liberal ranks are unimpressed with Dutton announcing policy without the scrutiny of the party room. One is particularly furious, telling me: “There’s no reset, no strategy except more of the same.” How Dutton plans to win back the hordes of hitherto Liberal voters who deserted the party for the teals or even the Greens has more than one shell-shocked Liberal wondering.

Albanese believes things have moved on during the past 10 years and his line in the sand over the 43 per cent target is a real test of this in the senate. The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, hardened his rhetoric about the inadequacy of Labor’s target during the week, but at the same time on radio appeared to keep open the prospect of voting to support it. Bandt says Labor’s “my way or the highway” approach was rejected by voters at the election.

The prime minister, however, says he is merely delivering on the agenda he successfully took to voters. The pre-fight-day sparring supports Oquist’s prediction that it will indeed be a noisy parliament, even if the arguments manage to be more civil. Burke says he has no plans to turn the place into a “polite dinner party”. Nor should he. After all, it is the cut and thrust of debate that drives our democracy.

Paul Fletcher’s charge that the delay of recalling parliament is “entirely at odds with Labor’s claim they do not want to waste a day” is itself at odds with the government’s frenetic pace in dealing with international crises directly related to Australia’s interests. On Sunday, after a huddle between Albanese, Foreign Affairs minister Penny Wong and Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil, O’Neil was dispatched to Sri Lanka.

Arriving on Monday with a redirected $50 million of development and food aid, O’Neil recommitted the new government in this most tangible of ways to the Australia–Sri Lanka joint working group to counter people smuggling and other transnational crime. This was established with the Morrison government to stop asylum-seeker boats arriving in Australian waters.

O’Neil’s message – “nothing has changed” – hasn’t stopped an estimated 300 desperate people boarding boats since the election. We can only hope the boost in humanitarian aid relieves some of the pain after their hasty repatriation.

Albanese himself leaves tomorrow for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Madrid, followed by a reconciliation meeting in Paris with President Emmanuel Macron. Almost certainly on the itinerary is a flying visit to Kyiv to express solidarity with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in his resistance to the brutal Russian invasion.

The prime minister will have much to report when parliament sits in a month’s time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Heavy crossbench to bear".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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