Here’s the Thing: How the Abbott government learned to argue with their allies

Originally published at TheVine, 3 April 2015

Or, how to lose friends and influence people against you


One of the things that gets said with reasonable regularity in response to the government’s less-than-stellar track record with regards passing legislation is that the Opposition keep blocking things in the Senate.

It’s a standard argument used by right-leaning commentators, government MPs and angry people on my Facebook page: the reason that all this Medicare co-pay stuff, or the changes to Centrelink eligibility, or the deregulation of universities and most of the budget (still unpassed and coming up to its first smash anniversary!) gets blocked in the upper house is because of Labor’s intransigence. Why oh why do they hate Australia so much?

Here’s the thing, though: Labor don’t block anything. They don’t have the numbers. Indeed, Labor and the Greens together don’t have the numbers.

Here’s the breakdown of the 76 members of the Senate:

The Coalition has 33 senators. Labor has 25. The Greens have 10. And then there are those eight other guys.

Passage of legislation through the Senate rests on a simple majority, thus the balance of power is held by eight independent-slash-microparty senators. It is they whom control the passage of legislation, and it is they whom the government needs to convince.

More specifically, assuming that Labor and the Greens are blocking a piece of proposed legislation, they need to get six crossbench votes (assuming that all Senators are present).

So the problem must be that the crossbench are all radical lefties with a strong anti-conservative bent, right?

Um, about that.

The eight senators who determine the passage of legislation are three sorta-kinda libertarians, two puppets of a mining billionaire, a conservative Christian, a former soldier turned outspoken Islamophobe, and a dude who likes cars.

Number of radical lefties? Zero. Number of people who would, on the face of it, disagree with the sorts of policies beloved of a Coalition government? Zero.

And that’s more or less what the government thought when they got into power, which is why there was so little transition between the steady-as-she-goes promises the Coalition made ahead of the election and the right-let’s-start-cutting-everything-promises-be-damned approach they took after taking office.

Now, admittedly it’s not quite as cut and dried as the above description suggests.

Clive Palmer sank millions into creating Palmer United for the express purpose of getting his vengeance on the Liberal National Party to whom he had been such a heavy donor, and the idea was always to become a potent enough force to hurt Queensland premier Campbell Newman and, to a lesser extent, Tony Abbott.

After the election it appeared Palmer controlled four of the eight crossbenchers. The party had three senators: WA mining executive Dio Wang, former QLD rugby league star Glenn Lazarus, and Tasmanian ex-soldier Jacqui Lambie, plus the Motoring Enthusiasts Party’s Victorian senator Ricky Muir, a former timber worker who had reportedly agreed to vote with the party as a bloc.

Before too long that alliance had splintered: Muir voted independently of PUP, and Lambie and Palmer engaged in an escalating war of crazy (largely over whether PUP would support Lambie’s planned legislation banning Muslim headscarves) until she abruptly left the party.

This would, under normal circumstances, look like a godsend to the government. Sure, PUP was largely attempting to balance populist policies with opposing government measures, which led to seemingly contradictory policies like scrapping the carbon not-actually-a tax but supporting the renewable energy target. But how hard could it be for the government to negotiate with a pair of confused newcomers with right-leaning personal politics?

Instead they started a war with Lambie over defence pay, and Muir (who had struggled to find a job for the nine months between being elected and taking office) was put offside by the government’s draconian employment benefits policies.

And they’re not alone. You want to cut government spending, Coalition? That should be a slam dunk for small-government advocates like David Leyonhjelm and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Yet neither have proved easy to convince.

A government that openly opposes marriage equality and supports socially conservative policies in place of existing programmes (who can forget former Social Services minister Kevin Andrews cutting funding for groups that provide emergency women’s shelters, but providing discount marriage counselling coupons?) should find plenty of common cause with Family First’s Bob Day and former DLP senator and avowedly religious anti-abortion campaigner John Madigan. But again, it’s been an uphill battle.

And with the Prime Minister loudly declaiming Muslims as not being appropriately anti-terrorism, Lambie should be a strong ally – yet she’s consistently voted against every piece of legislation the government proposes, and pledged to continue to do so until there’s a pay rise for defence personnel.

The only senator one would generally predict to be opposed to the government would be centrist SA independent Nick Xenophon, but he’s voted in support of several surprising bills – including granting sweeping new powers to the Immigration Minister. The man’s a wild card.

In other words, any difficulty the government has in negotiation is not down to the opposition of the Greens and Labor, but their own ineptitude at negotiating with people who are, after all, heartland Coalition voters.

Put simple: the Abbott Government have done the seemingly impossible: they’ve found a way to argue with people that agree with them.

Which raises the tantalising question: would a new and more responsive leader make those negotiations easier?

After all, it’s impossible to see how it could make things worse…