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Senate crossbench

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Monday, 11 June 2018


Some people like to describe the current Senate as musical chairs. It’s true there is considerable movement between seats, but the music hasn’t stopped and nobody is missing out on somewhere to sit. We need a better analogy. 

I wonder whether Swingers might be more appropriate, given we’ve seen more swinging between parties than Married at First Sight. 

Just as some people disapprove of swingers, some don’t like turncoat politicians. There is even talk that the minor parties will lose support because of it. I hope that is not the case.

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Each of the senators who changed seats left a party that was not grounded in clearly defined principles.  The clue often comes in the party’s name; a party named after Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon or Pauline Hanson can’t stand for anything other than what the leader thinks at a particular point in time. 

And when the leader rises to fame as a contrarian rather than a team player, it’s unsurprising that team formation is not their specialty.

It’s particularly difficult in the case of the Lambie and Xenophon parties, when the leader is no longer in parliament.

These turncoat politicians have understandably found that standing in parliament without knowing what they are supposed to stand for is untenable.  It’s as morally bankrupt as Bill Shorten backing Julia Gillard in 2012 when he said, “I haven't seen what she's said, but let me say I support what it is she said”. 

Yet there is some upside in the ructions.  Senators who were previously bound to an ever-changing and questionable party platform can now use their own intelligence and common sense to come to a position they are proud to defend.  They can also work with other Senators in a similar situation.

As a libertarian I have numerous policy differences with the current crop of crossbenchers. However, with few exceptions they are taking their job seriously.  I already work closely with Fraser Anning and Cory Bernardi; I expect to work more with Brian Burston; and Sterling Griff and Rex Patrick from the old Xenophon team are grown-ups who now have the freedom to come to their own well-reasoned positions.  Hopefully I can convince each of them, policy issue by policy issue, of the benefits of smaller government.

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Whenever a senator does something crazy, some commentators call for the Senate to be abolished.  Yet that would leave us with just the House of Representatives.  That’s the place where George Christensen, Bob Katter, Rebekha Sharkie and the Greens put the protectionists of the Senate to shame. 

It would place us in the same situation as Queensland, where Joh Bjelke-Petersen thrived for decades controlling its one house of parliament as well as the courts, media, police, and the underworld of gambling and prostitution.

Swingers or not, we will still have a significant Senate crossbench after the next election. 

Senators Hanson and Bernardi, plus the two remaining Xenophon team senators and three of the nine Greens senators aren’t even facing election.   So there will at least be seven crossbenchers.

And with 32 percent of voters in 2013 and 35 per cent of voters in 2016 voting for parties other than Labor or the Coalition, even a collapse in the minor party vote will see more senators joining the crossbench.  We will probably see at least one new crossbencher elected in each state, creating a total crossbench, including the Greens, of at least 13.  Moreover, neither a Coalition government, nor a Labor/Greens government, will command a majority.

The question is, what sort of crossbench will we get?

That will depend a lot on the priorities of the media and major parties.  Despite the last election being painfully long and a double dissolution caused by Senate obstruction, there was next to no coverage of how voting would shape the Senate.  The major parties gave it little consideration and the media focused on Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull.  Even I got bored and turned to Masterchef, and I was up for election myself. 

This ought to change.  Voters need to be informed of the principles, if any, of the parties vying for the Senate.  I oppose most of the Greens’ positions, but at least I know where they stand.  What of the others? 

If voters are to elect a principled Senate crossbench rather than a bunch of swingers, they deserve to be told about the choices before them.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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