Getting Things Done In The New Senate

The Senate has 76 members. Unlike the House of Representatives, where the Speaker only votes in the event of a tie, all members vote on all matters. Therefore, the magic number to get anything done is 39.

A tied vote (38-38) is lost, so the government must have 39. Once it gets to 39 votes, everyone else has only 37.

On appearances, the new Senate is arithmetically more difficult for the Turnbull government than the one it had to deal with in the 44th Parliament.

Senate Results – 2016 Federal Election
Party NSW VIC QLD WA SA Tas ACT NT Total
— Liberal Party
3
4
3
5
4
4
1
24
— The Nationals
2
1
2
5
— Country Liberals (NT)
1
1
Coalition
5
5
5
5
4
4
1
1
30
Australian Labor Party
4
4
4
4
3
5
1
1
26
Australian Greens
1
2
1
2
1
2
9
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation
1
2
1
4
Nick Xenophon Team
3
3
Liberal Democrat Party
1
1
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party
1
1
Family First
1
1
Jacqui Lambie Network
1
1
TOTAL
12
12
12
12
12
12
2
2
76

Following the 2016 federal election, the number of seats held by the combined forces of the Coalition and ALP has fallen from 58 to 56. The Coalition has lost 3 and now holds 30, whilst the ALP has gained one and has 26.

The Greens have lost one senator and hold nine. The crossbench of Greens and others has grown from 18 to 20.

Excluding the Greens, the crossbench of eight in the previous parliament has grown to eleven.

Interestingly, four crossbenchers from the previous parliament – Lambie, Day, Leyonhjelm and Xenophon – have been re-elected. Madigan, Muir, Lazarus and Wang were all defeated.

The Greens Have Partial Balance of Power

The Greens now hold a partial balance of power in any situation where the the ALP opposes a Coalition proposal in the Senate. The Coalition’s 30 and Greens 9 is a bare majority of two (39-37) in the 76-seat upper house. The Greens, therefore, have the capacity to guarantee the passage of any piece of government legislation.

Last February, the Greens co-operated with the Turnbull government to reform the Senate voting system. Whether many such occasions will arise during this term remains to be seen and has to be considered unlikely.

If the ALP and Greens Oppose the Government

If the government (30) is opposed by the ALP (26) and the Greens (9), it will need nine votes from some combination of One Nation (4), Xenophon (3), Leyonhjelm, Hinch, Day and Lambie.

This is tricky for the government because it will have to reach agreement with multiple parties and individuals to get to 39.

Moreover, the government will not be able to avoid negotiating with One Nation, since at least two of its senators will be needed on any vote not supported by the ALP and Greens. Similarly, at least one of the Xenophon senators will be needed in such a situation.

Limitations on the Power of the Greens

The Greens’ balance of power is limited in a very important way.

Whilst they can get the government across the line on any particular vote on legislation or procedure, they don’t have a blocking majority, even with ALP support.

The combined forces of the ALP and Greens (35) is still three short of being able to block government legislation. The two parties will need the support of either One Nation, Xenophon, or any three of Leyonhjelm, Hinch, Day and Lambie.

Similarly, if the ALP and Greens are opposed, the government can get to 39 votes by securing any 9 of the 11 members from the six other groups/individuals represented in the Senate.

Is One Nation a Powerful Influence?

With four senators, One Nation is clearly a force to be reckoned with. It can’t be avoided by Turnbull when he confronts opposition from the ALP and Greens.

What we don’t know is whether the group will have any coherence and predictability.

If the other Senate groups can hold themselves together and form productive relationships with the government and the opposition, One Nation could be sidelined. The unity of One Nation and the Xenophon Team will be vital to their power.

The question to keep in mind now is whether the four One Nation and three Xenophon senators will hang together or hang separately. Back in 1998, One Nation won eleven seats in the Queensland parliament. Within three years, only a couple were left. The others hived off in various directions and most lost their seats at the next election.

Hanson presents as a person who doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, or at least won’t admit to it. Evidence and facts seem to be outweighed by emotion, prejudice and a yearning for yesteryear. Her capacity to be a leader of a small parliamentary team is untested. Her capacity to handle the bizarre views of her Queensland running mate, Malcolm Roberts, will be a challenge. With her tendency for grandiosity, it might be sensible to assume that this won’t end well.

Remember What Happened to Palmer?

A constant of Australian politics is that minor parties are inclined to splinter and fragment. The Australian Democrats and the first incarnation of One Nation are recent examples of this.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) went into the last parliament with three members. Within a year, the party fractured, with Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus sitting as independents. Only Dio Wang remained in PUP.

In this year’s election, Lazarus and Wang were defeated. Only Jacqui Lambie emerged alive from the wreckage of PUP.

John Madigan, the DLP senator who deserted the party to form his own, was another micro-party casualty.

The Nick Xenophon Team is likely to be a more cohesive group. Xenophon is a known quantity who has engaged in a selection process based on a combination of principles, ideas and personal compatibility. Nevertheless, past experience of minor parties invites caution in assuming his three senators and one House member will stick together.

Leyonhjelm and Day Can Bolster the Government

Based on their records in the previous parliament, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day are likely to support the government more often than not.

Day, in particular, is inclined to vote with the government.

Leyonhjelm and Day tend to agree on economic issues. They oppose tax increases and favour deregulation. “Budget repair” measures are likely to meet with their approval. Day, however, is a Christian conservative who parts company with Leyonhjelm on issues such as same-sex marriage.

On many economic issues, the government will probably start with 32 votes, including Leyonhjelm and Day, but will still need a combination of other groups to get to 39.

Uncertainties and Idiosyncrasies

The previous parliament showed that Jacqui Lambie is quixotic, volatile and profoundly ignorant on many issues. She will remain an unpredictable vote with a strong media presence.

Derryn Hinch’s understanding of the media will assist him in promoting his causes but we have no idea yet whether he will be able to discipline himself to work effectively in the Senate.

Hinch was elected on issues to do with crime, sex offences and sentencing that are more State than Federal responsibilities. Socially liberal, but with a laissez-faire attitude to the law, combined with a flair for self-promotion, he is something of an unknown factor.

The First Tests

The fate of the government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation will be one of the first indications of the leanings of the Senate crossbench. A joint sitting of the Parliament before Christmas remains a possibility.

Legislation to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage will also be a guide to the social leanings of the new Senate.

*
August 5 Update: Reports today say that the ALP, Greens and One Nation are likely to support a motion in the Senate proposing the establishment of a Royal Commission into the banking system. Whilst a Royal Commission still needs to be initiated by the government, this is an early sign of what could be some unlikely alliances in the Senate.

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