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Mal Brough's attack on crossbench could cost Malcolm Turnbull Senate success

The new dawn in the troubled relationship between the Senate and the Coalition government has already been jeopardised by Mal Brough's attack on micro parties, crossbenchers warn.

Fairfax Media has learnt that the prospect of reversing some of the Abbott government's legislative failures in the Senate has been dangled in front of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during his initial talks with crossbenchers last week.

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They include the re-establishment of the building industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the creation of a Registered Organisations Commission to monitor and regulate unions.

Both were defeated narrowly in the Senate, with key crossbench votes going against the government.

One crossbencher even believes new Education Minister Simon Birmingham could deliver higher education reforms that Christopher Pyne failed to progress if Mr Turnbull can forge a better personal rapport with balance of power senators than that achieved by Mr Abbott and dumped Senate leader Eric Abetz.

But the relationship was unexpectedly undermined by Mr Brough in his first public comments as Special Minister of State. He insisted the government would push ahead with reforms to prevent "preference harvesting" micro party candidates from getting elected on "minuscule percentages" of the primary votes.


All crossbenchers except Nick Xenophon relied on preferences to get elected.

NSW crossbencher David Leyonhjelm branded Mr Brough's threats a "brain fart", warning that the crossbench would go to war against the government if its existence was threatened - most likely in a deal between the Coalition and the Greens to abolish the group voting ticket.

The group voting ticket allows parties to direct the preferences of the estimated 95 per cent of voters who vote "1" above the line of the Senate ballot.

"The crossbench likes Malcolm but it is the government that will suffer if it sets out to hurt the crossbench," said Senator Leyonhjelm.

Motoring Enthusiast Ricky Muir said: "I would like to remind the new Special Minister of State, and indeed the Prime Minister, that although it can be difficult negotiating with a diverse crossbench, sometimes we protect the government from themselves.

"Any reform, no matter how it is sold to the people, is nothing more than a power grab to protect the major parties. If the people of Australia fall for this rhetoric and accept their argument, we will essentially end up with things remaining the way they have been allowed to become – two major parties focused on tit-for-tat politics while the voices of the people of Australia fall on deaf ears."

Fairfax Media understands Senator Muir has been closely watching the recent allegations against leaders of the CFMEU, including the wholesale destruction of documents in defiance of the trade union royal commission, and may be prepared to take another look at the re-introduction of the Registered Organisations Committee.

Victorian Senator John Madigan confirmed that he was willing to reconsider legislation already voted down. "As with any issue, I am willing to discuss this with the government and I will consider any proposed reform package on its merits, should this eventuate," he said.

A spokesman for incoming Employment Minister Michaelia Cash could not say whether another attempt would be made to resurrect the building watchdog. "Any decision of this nature is a matter for the cabinet," he said.

Family First senator Bob Day said the Coalition, Labor and the Greens were already over represented in Parliament. "They receive 75 per cent of votes but get 85 per cent of the seats," he said.

But Senator Xenophon, who supports an optional preferential system that would dispense with the group voting ticket but allow people to choose a small number of their own preferences, said reforms pushed by Mr Brough would "get rid of backroom deals" to the benefit of democracy.

Labor originally supported reforms but backed away amid fear that ending preference swapping would most benefit the Coalition.

Labor senator Sam Dastyari said the idea was "madness disguised as reform". "The root of this is the Liberal Party legislating to give itself a Senate majority," he said.

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