Inside Story

Senate update: the challenge for the government intensifies

Updated 7pm Wednesday | Results from three states confirm that the Coalition will need to be more flexible to succeed in government, writes Tim Colebatch

Tim Colebatch 2 August 2016 1625 words

Unusually qualified: Jane Hume, confirmed today as the Coalition’s fifth senator in Victoria, shown here with the member for Chisholm, Julia Banks, at the post-election meeting of the Coalition parties on 18 July. Andrew Taylor/AAP Image

When Greens senator Rachel Siewert won the final Senate seat in Western Australia on Monday, she made it even harder for the Turnbull government to get its legislation through the Senate without Labor support. But the Coalition got some consolation on Tuesday, when Family First senator Bob Day, its closest ally on the Senate crossbenches, squeezed home to take the final seat in South Australia by just 3500 votes from Labor senator Anne McEwen.

It won further consolation on Wednesday when, as expected, the Senate results for Victoria saw the Coalition’s fifth candidate, Jane Hume, take the final spot. But there was near-upset when a the dark horse, Family First candidate Peter Bain, cleaned up on the preferences, taking him from 39,000 votes to almost 169,000, streaking around the outside to overtake five higher-place candidates and almost bring off the upset of the whole Senate count.

Victoria gave the Coalition the only gain it made in the Senate, and the only real gain it made in the House of Representatives (apart from Clive Palmer evacuating his seat), with Julia Banks taking Chisholm after former speaker Anna Burke retired. Malcolm should send Daniel Andrews a bottle of Grange in thanks.

Senator Hume has been working as a policy analyst for Australian Super, an unusual qualification for a Liberal senator. Before that, she had worked in the banking sector, and earlier this year she was the losing candidate in the preselection that saw twenty-seven-year-old James Patterson whisked from the Institute of Public Affairs onto the Senate benches.

She and Derryn Hinch will replace outgoing senators Ricky Muir and John Madigan, who were swept away in the 2 July poll. In a typically classy statement, Ricky Muir said he hopes to return to politics one day, adding:

I can leave parliament proud knowing that I gave it my best shot against the odds and did not fall victim to the two-party political games. There is a large portion of society who are sick of the mainstream political establishment and class. Those results were clear in 2013 and despite the government’s best attempt to remove the representatives who were elected to represent those people, the 2016 results have also shown much the same. I am proud that I did my best in my time to represent those people.

It has been a roller coaster ride one could never forget and one I will never regret. Despite many achievements in varying areas of politics and trying hard to achieve in others, my proudest achievement is to hear people in the street say “you gave me hope” or “you influenced me to try.” There is nothing more heart-warming to hear these expressions and to realise that I am receiving them for simply being myself. If my legacy was to motivate people into having a go at whatever it is that they want to achieve, no matter whether people say they don’t belong or have no chance, then I could achieve nothing more for the rest of my life and feel that my job is complete.

Overall, the results mean that to get legislation through the new Senate, the Coalition will need the support of Labor, or the Greens, or no fewer than nine of the eleven crossbenchers – including the three senators of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Senator Siewert scored an unexpectedly easy win for the final place in the WA Senate team when preferences were distributed on Monday, defeating former Greens colleague Kado Muir, a dreadlocked Aboriginal artist and activist who stood this time for the National Party after becoming frustrated by his failure to be preselected for a winnable seat by the Greens.

Siewert’s victory, by more than 25,000 votes, means the Greens have retained nine of their ten Senate seats – a better result than many had forecast. It also means that between them, Labor and the Greens will hold thirty-five of the seventy-six seats in the new Senate, just four short of a majority.

This in turn means that if Labor, the Greens and the three senators of the Nick Xenophon team combine in opposition to government legislation, they will be able to block it in the Senate. And it means that where it relies on the crossbenches to pass legislation, it will need the support of Pauline Hanson and her team, as well as the Xenophon team and at least three others.

Eleven crossbenchers will sit in the new Senate, compared to eight in the old one. While there are no final results yet from New South Wales and Queensland, they will almost certainly comprise the three Xenophones; Pauline Hanson and two other One Nation senators; David Leyonhjelm and a second Liberal Democrat; Jacqui Lambie; Derryn Hinch; and Bob Day. If just two or three of these align with Labor and the Greens in opposition to Coalition legislation, it will not pass.

The Coalition could expect support on most issues from the Liberal Democrats and Senator Day, who are united in pursuing a dry, smaller-government agenda. While the Xenophon group and Senator Hinch represent the political centre, winning support from Senator Lambie and the Pauline Hanson team on many issues will be challenging.

The Coalition will have only thirty seats in the new Senate, down from thirty-three in the old one. It won back a seat in Victoria, but lost one in every other mainland state. In Western Australia, the victim was former defence minister David Johnston, who was demoted to the unwinnable sixth place on the Liberal ticket.

His seat went to One Nation candidate Rod Culleton, whose time as a senator could be brief. A farmer turned anti-bank activist after being evicted from his own property by his bank, he has been convicted on one charge and is facing another over his attempts to prevent other farmers suffering the same fate. Interviewed on ABC TV’s 7.30 last Friday, he cheerily revealed that if he is disqualified from serving as a senator, he would nominate his wife or a mate to take his place in the Senate, and abandon his frontline role to run their office instead.

But, as Professor Tony Blackshield argues, it is not clear he will have that choice. This could mean that, for the second election in a row, Western Australia will have a rerun of its Senate election.

Senator Siewert is no household name, but behind the scenes she has won a reputation as a tireless worker on Senate committees and a dogged battler for the rights of vulnerable Australians. An agricultural scientist who became coordinator of the WA conservation council before entering politics, she was first elected in 2004, and has been the Greens’ spokesperson on welfare and Aboriginal affairs ever since, pursuing unfashionable issues of hardcore poverty and disadvantage that don’t make for a national media profile.

But she received an avalanche of preferences from voters in her home state, right across the ideological spectrum. She topped the preference counts from the Democratic Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats, as well as from Labor, Animal Justice and the Renewable Energy Party. Of the twenty-five parties that distributed 1000 preferences or more, Siewert got the biggest share from nine parties and the second-biggest share from another seven, right across the ideological spectrum. As in Tasmania, One Nation and the Shooters Party won the next-biggest share of preferences.

The South Australian count was very different. Preferences scattered fairly evenly between the key candidates until the Liberals’ fifth-placed senator, Sean Edwards, was eliminated. Senator Day then won enough of the Liberal and One Nation preferences to overtake Labor and hang on to win the final seat by a margin of only 0.2 per cent of the vote.

The Xenophon group was the big winner, expanding from one senator to three, with Senator Xenophon to be joined in the new Senate by his right-hand man, Stirling Griff, a former head of the SA retail traders’ association, and by his long-time policy adviser, thirty-year-old Skye Kakoschke-Moore, a graduate in law and economics who has worked for him since 2010.

Their victims were the Liberals’ Senator Edwards, despite his efforts for South Australian industry, and the second Greens senator, Robert Simms. On the Labor side, Senator McEwen lost after being dumped to fourth place to make room for the return of former senator and factional heavy Don Farrell, who lost his seat in 2013.

The outcome in New South Wales and Queensland will be decided later this week. The outcome in both looks fairly clear, although One Nation has a rough outside chance of pulling off an upset in Queensland, and the Christian Democrats an outside chance in New South Wales, in each case potentially at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

The bottom line is clear. The government called the double dissolution to get rid of a Senate it found too difficult to work with – and has come back with its comfortable majority in the House turned into the barest of majorities, and a Senate that will be even more difficult to handle.

The Turnbull government has no choice: if it is to make a success of this term in government, it will have to adopt a much more flexible approach to sharing power.

On most issues, it is much closer to Labor than it is to One Nation, and would have a better chance of negotiating worthwhile reforms with it on issues such as budget repair and climate change. It makes the prime minister’s backdown to the conservative wing on a largely symbolic issue such as allowing Kevin Rudd to run for UN secretary-general – a post he was never likely to win – even more puzzling. •