Friday, October 07, 2022

Grattan on Friday: Election delivered bonanza of crusaders, but what impact will they make?

David Pocock, the progressive independent who broke the Liberals’ stranglehold on one of the two ACT senate seats, would not have expected to find himself affiliated with Pauline Hanson before he was even sworn in.

But, as they say, politics makes strange bedfellows and the two have already discussed how to get Anthony Albanese to compromise on his decision to reduce staff numbers.

The staff cuts will only be the beginning of Labor’s search for general savings, which will result in the October budget. Some of them will make the public much more excited than cutting politicians’ claims.

But Albanians’ actions, without prior consultation, came as a gross shock to the “teal” independents who arrived at the House of Commons with other new members this week for their orientation.

The crops were celebrated in the media and seen by many voters as part of a new breed of politician. They probably did not expect such rough treatment, delivered in a letter from the new prime minister.

Existing cross-bankers, with years of experience of how politics works, may have been less surprised, but they were also upset.

In the last parliament, cross-bankers had four extra staff, in addition to those assigned to government and opposition backbenchers. With a very extensive cross bank, Albanians brought it back to one extra (two for those in larger constituencies).

Aside from expenses, he fights fairness with other backbenchers. He also says plans to sharpen the parliamentary library will provide more resources for cross-bankers.

The cross-bankers say that they do not have the backing that a large party gives to its own MPs, and that the library cannot give the kind of custom advice that a staff member does, let alone so quickly with assistance, or 24 hours per day are available.

Crossbench senators make a further case. In a room where the government is in a minority, their votes matter more than those of cross-bankers in the lower house, where Labor will have the numbers.

This is especially true for someone like Pocock who, along with the Greens, is expected to assure the government of its majority over several pieces of legislation. (The Greens, who are treated as a party, have not had their staff reduced, but the same number will serve a total party room that has increased from 10 to 16.)

Read more: Cutting MPs’ staff will be a setback for democracy

When he returns from overseas, Albanians will address the complaints. His choice is to stay hard (the public will not care) or to buy a cross-benevolence with a conciliatory gesture.

The staff dispute has provided immediate controversy, but in this new parliament, which will only meet on July 26, there will be more fundamental issues surrounding the cross-bankers.

The cross bench is of course diverse. In the lower house there are Greens, the new crops (of course individuals in their own right) and other independents, as well as the distinctive Bob Katter, from the deep north.

In the Senate, the crusade ranges from Greens to the two Hansonites and Ralph Babet, elected from Victoria for the UAP.

The tiles have a lot to live up to, after their high-profile campaigns. They differ from many other MPs. They were not political staff members or come through the rough internals of parties (although a couple come from well-known political families). They talk about doing politics differently. But without the balance of power in the House of Representatives, will they be able to drive meaningful changes in how things are done?

And what about policy material can the lower house breeders achieve? They need to prove that they are relevant.

With a lack of hard power, they can only function through influence and advocacy. It is possible, though difficult. For example, in the previous parliament, independent Helen Haines’ release of a private member’s bill for an integrity commission contributed to public pressure. She (and others) will be eager to have a vote on the issue as the government continues its legislation.

One problem for breeding is that the Albanian government will address key issues on which it has campaigned, particularly climate change and integrity. It was easy enough for them to fight against the Coalition before the election, but things are more challenging when they are (essentially) in line with the government on these matters.

They can say Labor needs to go further (although there may not be miles in it), and there will be some room to propose changes to legislation.

Read more: Word of The Hill: Parliamentary ‘newbies’ inspect their workplace, with some complaints

Recent history indicates that once crossbanks are elected, they dig in, but they are not invulnerable (as Kerryn Phelps found in Wentworth). The crops will have to show over the next three years they represent what we can describe as “value for votes”. And if the government delivers on climate, integrity and women’s issues, the tiles will have to refresh their own agendas for the 2025 election.

The government is taking some interest in surviving crops because they provide a firewall. They hold seats. Labor itself cannot win from liberal hands. So it may seem like giving them some modest policy wins.

The Greens-Labor relationship will be stronger and tighter. The two parties are fierce rivals and no love is lost.

But Labor will require the Greens (plus one more vote) to get controversial legislation through the Senate. The Greens will insist on change. It will probably often be a game of bluff and against bluff.

The Green Party room is politically diverse – testifying to the radicalism of Victorian Senator Lidia Thorpe who questions the legitimacy of parliament itself – so there could be some strong internal battles.

The Greens say their position on Labor’s climate legislation will be to improve, not to block. The first test will come early, when the government submits a bill to legislate its emission reduction targets.

Since the Greens could not get a more ambitious position, they would, if they followed their own set rule, support the legislation.

Finally, Pocock’s position is interesting. He will not be the only person for the government to get that additional Senate vote. Jacqui Lambie and her newly elected Senate colleague would be candidates.

But Pocock will often be in the spotlight. For his part, while reflecting his progressive views, he will have to remember that he is sitting in a traditionally Liberal seat. He won largely because the former incumbent, the deeply conservative Zed Seselja, was so unpopular. So if he wants to hold on to his place in the long run, Pocock may have to do a balancing act.

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