Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

By instinct, Tony Abbott is a fighting man. But to run his government successfully, he will have to go down the same path as Julia Gillard. He will have to learn the arts of compromise and negotiation.

His comfortable majority in the House of Representatives will be offset by an uncomfortable minority in the Senate. For the next 10 months, it will remain controlled by Labor and the Greens. It is highly unlikely that they will agree to dismantle the reforms they fought hard to put in place over the past six years. And Abbott's agenda is mostly about dismantling what Labor and the Greens have built.

From July 2014, control will pass to a barnyard of crossbenchers comprising, on current voting figures, two senators from the Palmer United Party, and one each from the DLP, Family First, the Liberal Democrats, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Australian Sports Party, and, of course, Nick Xenophon.

The Coalition will need six of its eight votes to pass any legislation that Labor and the Greens oppose. It should help that virtually all those groups, whatever their names, seem to have been set up by people on the right. But they are their own masters, they have their own agendas, and there will be a price for their support. In Palmer's case, one suspects, the ultimate price could be quite high.

(May I make my first prediction for this new era? Within three years, the Palmer United Party will become Palmer Disunited. Palmer will not have real power in the House; his Senate colleagues will. They will get sick of him and part ways, which could make life a bit easier for Abbott.)

John Howard's preferred tactic when he lacked a Senate majority was to orchestrate pressure on Labor to force it to give way on legislation it opposed. But Howard was flexible: he negotiated the passage of the GST and his first (good) round of workplace reforms with the Democrats, and even got one tough reform through in a deal with Greens founder Bob Brown.

I doubt Labor will be so pliable this time around. The endless back-downs in the Beazley years cost it credibility. As Howard remarked last month, part of Labor's problem is that voters don't see it as standing for anything. As Australia's most successful politician in our time, his own career is a classic example of why having policy consistency matters.

But doesn't Abbott have a mandate to impose change? No, he has a mandate to govern. The Senate's role in our constitution is to act as a check on the government of the day. It is not going too far to say it is the only role the Senate has. It cannot be a check on government if it simply rubber stamps anything for which the government claims a mandate.

Abbott took just that view when Coalition senators joined with the Greens to block Rudd's emissions trading legislation. He argued it was an opposition's role to oppose government policy it objected to - and on constitutional grounds he was right.

Opposition senators and members of the House of Reps get their mandate from the voters - and it is to fight for the policies on which they were elected. They have no mandate to support policies they opposed in the campaign. The government of the day has no mandate to try to bully its policies through a system that was designed deliberately to be a check on its power.

The new government will have to learn how to compromise and negotiate, as Howard did. One amazing fact to emerge in the campaign was Christine Milne's disclosure that she has never had a conversation with Abbott. She is not alone in that: in 2009, Brown revealed that he had had only one meeting with Rudd since the latter became prime minister. Rudd's example is not one to follow.

If Milne remains Greens leader, Abbott should establish his own lines of communication, however tense. He and his inner circle will need to devote a lot of thought to how to handle the new crossbenchers. His Senate leader, Eric Abetz, is even less a diplomat than Abbott himself. Another senior Coalition senator could be appointed as the good cop to try to keep the new boys in line - perhaps Arthur Sinodinos, who fortunately survived Saturday night's carnage, which claimed his colleague Helen Kroger, and who seems set to become finance minister.

Similarly, Abbott should try to establish a back-door relationship with whoever becomes Labor leader, so that issues needing a bipartisan response can get one. An excellent topic to initiate their dialogue would be to agree on reforms to ensure that never again will anyone be elected a senator with the support of just 0.2 per cent of voters, or because they won the donkey vote in the Senate draw.

It is ridiculous that a sophisticated country like Australia should have the balance of power in its Parliament determined through a lottery like this. And the solutions are obvious:

  • Raise the cost of nominating to stand for election substantially, to more realistic levels than the $1000 it now costs to stand for the lower house and $2000 for the Senate.

  • Make preferences optional, so that people can vote below the line without fear of getting it wrong and having their vote ruled informal. Victoria, NSW and Tasmania require voters to write down only as many preferences as there are members to be elected (e.g., for a half-Senate election, from 1 to 6). The ACT requires just one preference. Either would be a vast improvement on the officious rules we have now, which require voters to state preferences when they actually have none.

  • Adopt the 5 per cent threshold used in Germany and New Zealand to ensure that only parties with substantial support (and hence, real policies) can be elected to Parliament.

In this election, that would have given us a choice between the Coalition, Labor, Greens, Palmer in half the country and Xenophon in South Australia. The micro-parties could join them if they merged to become real parties, with a solid base of support. Anyone should be free to stand for Parliament. But voters are entitled to be able to make real choices, not forced ones - and to know who they really are voting for.

Australian politics has too much conflict, too little consensus. Abbott thrives on conflict. He would be a better and more durable prime minister if, like Howard, he became equally adept at finding consensus.

Tim Colebatch is economics editor of The Age.