The last weeks of the parliamentary year showed the Senate cross bench in action. It contains various emphases and points of view. To say they are a mixed bag is an understatement.
All that is really lacking is an extreme left senator unrestrained by Labor/Green discipline. But to say that it is generally conservative doesn't adequately capture its unpredictability. They cannot be properly categorised using traditional left-right labels.
Amid all the controversy I've grown comfortable with their place in the Senate and appreciative of their collective presence in an otherwise party dominated chamber. They each have their flaws, some of them serious, but they make a generally positive contribution to public discussion and to ultimate legislative outcomes. We are better off for their presence.
Jacqui Lambie has gumption and a straight-talking style. It was a pleasure to watch her in a committee hearing taking no nonsense from corporate representatives trying to use economic gobbledygook to defend the impact on struggling farmers of $1 per litre milk in the big supermarkets. She also took a lead on the backpacker tax question.
Derryn Hinch is cheerful and unflappable with an easy and relaxed demeanour. Someone needed to shake up the faux formality of the parliamentary chambers. He has continued his campaign against child sex abusers and contributed to opening Senate proceedings to television scrutiny.
David Leyonhjelm is urbane and cultivated despite his gun-toting proclivities. He overplays his role as a bridge between the government and Labor/Greens but someone certainly needs to fill this gap. His libertarian anti-government views cut refreshingly across the major parties' traditional approach.
Nick Xenophon has been tarnished by his leap from lone Independent to party leader with cracks emerging in his seemingly innocent and wide-eyed persona. But he remains a voice for some good causes, like whistle blowers and open government, and for protection for depressed regions. He is also a skilled negotiator of amendments to government legislation. His approach to Murray Darling water flows led to greater consultation.
Pauline Hanson and her party remain elusive. They still look like a mad bunch of eccentrics and their extremist follies should never be forgotten. She herself is over-exposed, and yet to evolve beyond a caricature despite 20 years in public life. Her team members demonstrate a worrying adherence to conspiracy theories, but some have begun to show their individual capacities to compromise.
"It is difficult to portray this government as an efficient outfit whose good policy ideas are being derailed by a feral Senate. On the contrary Turnbull recognises it needs all the help it can get, including from the cross benchers."
This is a Senate cross bench which Malcolm Turnbull and the Greens tried to eliminate through the combination of Senate reform and a double dissolution. But its presence has been now accepted by the media and by the major parties in a way its predecessor never was between mid-2014 and early 2016. Several developments have contributed to a more balanced appreciation.
The incoming cross bench senators, especially Ricky Muir and Lambie, were ambushed during 2014 in the prevailing media and major party prejudice against minority interests. They were subjected to unfair and juvenile attacks on their character in a way major party senators never were. That anti-cross bench sentiment seems to have transformed somewhat now into seeing them as legitimate constraints on executive government.
The weakness of the Turnbull government has also benefited this cross bench. The government hubris of 2013-2015, exemplified by Tony Abbott, has faded as it is mired in uncertainty and failure. It is difficult to portray this government as an efficient outfit whose good policy ideas are being derailed by a feral Senate. On the contrary Malcolm Turnbull recognises that it now needs all the help it can get, including from the cross benchers.
Finally the Trump victory means no one in media or government is certain of right and wrong anymore and so-called insiders in the major parties are not accorded unearned deference.
The government had its victories, defeats and delays in this final parliamentary session. The victories were hard-won and often compromised but the final outcome was often improved. The defeats will be accepted as an inevitable consequence of the prevailing Senate numbers. The parliament is a better place for the presence of these cross benchers because they help facilitate compromise rather than a winner-takes-all approach.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.
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06 December 2016
Thank you John for such a balanced, sensible analysis.
06 December 2016
This is a characteristically thoughtful and non-doctrinaire appraisal of the contemporary Senate.
The comment about the opportunistic Coalition/Green collusion warrants emphasis: furthermore, it is not the first time that the Greens (who are too prone to present themselves as idealists, different from the "major" parties) have behaves in a self-interested manner (their rejection of Rudd's proposals about climate change in 2010 was an another egregious example).
It should also not be forgotten that the current state of the Senate is a direct consequence of Malcolm Turnbull's hubristic over-reach last April (and has lack of any significant political "nous"). It's his bed and he must lie in it.
The real point is that, in general, those "cross-benchers" are neither more wise nor more foolish than most of the other "orthodox" Senators and, most likely, have a closer connection with their constituents. In fact, it could be plausibly argued that they are making the Senate operate in ways that are more aligned (notably in being a "States' House") with the Founding Fathers' intent.
07 December 2016
John, I would like to agree with the comment already made and to thank you for your informed and balanced assessment.
13 December 2016
Hinch is not child abuse campaigner, he is a rabble-rouser who uses the serious subject of abused children to further his own career. Name one thing Hinch has done to aid abused children. What you mean is that he has mocked our courts by breaching court orders and is now a convicted criminal because of it. The problem with fanatics like Hinch is that they can turn people off by exhausting their limited compassion for victims whereby many people already feel helpless to aid victims and can switch off emotionally when confronted with problems they just cannot solve. And once the building commission sets out to contain unionists you may like to ask them how they feel about Hinch aiding the government. They have kids as well and there is such a thing as abuse via attacking parents and painting them as union thugs. This article is all about the writer's feelings and ignores the 1000s of Muslims denigrated by Pauling Hanson and her mob.