Which way will Palmer tip the balance of power?

A little over 40 years ago, the Whitlam Labor government faced a hostile Senate.

After only a year in office, the Senate had rejected 13 government bills, deferred seven and amended 19.

Many of the bills were key parts of the government’s platform. By April 1974, the Senate had twice rejected 10 bills – including the health bills that aimed to create Medibank – rejected another nine and was proposing to reject supply.

Whitlam had no option. On the basis of six of the twice-rejected bills, he advised the governor-general to dissolve both houses of parliament and the people went to the polls.

On re-election, and still facing an obstructionist Senate, Whitlam had the six bills passed in a joint sitting of the two houses in August 1974.

There’s nothing unusual in Australian politics about a government, such as Abbott's, failing to command a majority in the Senate. In the late 1960s, the Democratic Labour Party had to be persuaded to pass Coalition bills in the Senate, while prime minister John Howard had to negotiate with Democrats leader Meg Lees to get his important GST legislation through the Senate in 1999.


Howard and the conservative leaders before him had one clear advantage over current Coalition leader Tony Abbott – they dealt with minority party leaders who had integrity.

Lees and her colleagues may not have liked the GST, but when they sat down to negotiate, they did so in good faith.

There is no sign, as yet, that the key minority-party player, Clive Palmer, will take a principled position in his negotiations with the government.

It is impossible to say where Palmer and his three Senate colleagues will stand on any matter to be considered by the Senate. No-one knows whether he will stick to any behind-closed-door deal he negotiates. Even worse, it is impossible to know how all the other representatives of the minor parties will line up on key issues.

From July 1, the 76-member Senate will consist of 33 Coalition members, 25 Labor members, 10 Greens, three from the PUP, independent Nick Xenophon, one each from the Democratic Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, one from Family First, and one from the Motoring Enthusiast Party. The Coalition needs to find six others to join its senators to pass legislation.

With this mishmash of members, it is hard to imagine where negotiations might start, but start they must. Abbott has taken the initiative and has now met Family First senator-elect Bob Day, independent Nick Xenophon, Democratic Labour Party Senator John Madigan and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm.

Palmer last month threatened not to meet with the government unless it gave him more staff and party status. But he was then caught out breaking his own promise by meeting Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

Palmer says that without more staff, he and his PUP senators cannot hope to understand the legislation put before them. But in the past, independent senators have managed. Senator Brian Harradine from Tasmania spent many years alone considering bills and making up his own mind.

No-one forced the current batch of senators-elect to run for office. In all probability, a couple of them would not have expected to be elected. But now that they have been, they must take on the full responsibility of the job.

There is no excuse for not knowing what is involved. If anyone feels they are not up to the job, they are free to resign. But what senators are not free to do is hide from the public. Nor can they pretend that they are not politicians.

It may well be that the independent and minority party senators are more representative of ordinary Australians than candidates who over the years have been selected by the major parties. But ordinariness is not a qualification for office.

We do not choose our surgeons or our engineers because they are ordinary, we choose them because they have knowledge in their field of expertise. Nor would we have them in their professions simply because a wealthy individual sought to buy them a position.

It should be the same with our members of parliament. They need to know something of the job they have taken on, something of our political system, and something of the world.

Minority parties have come and gone in the past, disappearing as the populist issue that initially attracted voters faded away. Their popularity always relies firstly on disillusionment with the major parties.

The Australian Democrats blossomed after Labor had been thrown out of office in 1975, with much of the electorate unhappy about the Coalition’s action in denying supply, but also dissatisfied with Labor’s performance in government. Don Chipp’s promise to ''keep the bastards honest'' resonated with voters for a number of years but in the end, his party’s candidates were seen as politicians, just like all the rest.

Palmer is seeking to exploit every populist possibility. His senators will surely join with Abbott in abolishing the mining and carbon taxes. He is also likely to do the government a favour by forcing modification of Abbott’s parental leave scheme, which just about everyone except Abbott believes is inequitable.

Apart from that, the issues that will drive the PUP are unknown. It is clear that Tasmanian PUP senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has a mind of her own and will not necessarily take direction from Palmer.

Lambie, a former soldier, has strong views about defence matters and would like to see Australia bring back compulsory military service, but so far, there is no sign that even her own party will take up this policy.

Nor is there any other unifying PUP policy thread. In the end, the only thing that will keep its members together is Clive Palmer’s money and his ability to fund their political campaigns.