If you were casting a reality TV series, you would be hard pressed to improve upon the group that has assembled in Canberra this week.
From Tasmania, we have Jacqui Lambie – a woman who spent ten years in the army and then five years fighting for veterans’ compensation. She has come to Canberra with a wardrobe from Vinnies and laughs that she belongs at the tradies’ entrance underneath Parliament House, rather than the Senate doors. She also calls the Prime Minister a "political psychopath".
Then there are her Palmer United colleagues: Queenslander Glenn Lazarus, whose professional footballing career is still clearly in evidence when he is trying to ignore media scrums (the guy just wades right through); and the enigmatic West Australian Dio Wang, who describes his politics before joining PUP as “zero” and has already figured out you can avoid the media entirely by coming through the car park.
Then you’ve got their sometimes sidekick, Ricky Muir, who demonstrated his enthuasiam for motoring by driving the 500 kilometres from his home in southern Victoria to Parliament. He has already had a high-profile shocker with Mike Willesee, but insists he handled himself “absolutely fine” in the meeting he had with the Prime Minister on Wednesday.
There’s also pro-gun, pro-cat libertarian David Leyonhjelm, who wants the government out of our lives. The New South Welshman has teamed up with Family First’s Bob Day from South Australia. So far, they agree on all things economic, but try and avoid social matters (apparently Day could not believe it when he discovered that Leyonhjelm has never married his partner of 30 years, Amanda).
For his part, Day has been married to Bronte since 1981. He is also a home building businessman with a pilot’s licence who plays a mean version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River (the YouTube clip is on his homepage).
The crossbenchers are joined by a fresh instalment of major party senators, including Labor’s Joe Bullock, who suggested before the election that he doesn’t always vote Labor. And Barnaby Joyce’s former chief-of-staff Matt Canavan, who completed his first Parliamentary doorstop by saying hi to his Mum.
Canberra has of course been in a state of high excitement about the start of the new Senate. Since September 7, there has been a strong current of the hypothetical running through things. But when the revamped upper house sits for the first time on Monday, all the election results will finally be in play. People will have to start putting their votes where their mouth is.
And those Senators who have been hard to catch and ask questions of, now have official ways of being contacted (even if they have worked out the car park trick).
Parliament also gets an enthusiasm boost with the July 1 batch of senators. Deep into a cold, dark winter and a budget debate that is well and truly quagmired [crt], there was something uplifting about watching the new kids arrive this week (dare we say it).
Day turned up at his office for the first time proudly carrying an Australia-themed bag that belongs to his daughter. Lambie chuckled “this is pretty cool, isn’t it?” when she clapped eyes on her suite (after a bit of a hiccup with a key). And Leyonhjelm could not conceal his relief that after nearly ten months in the Senate waiting room, he finally has an office and some staff. He was also pretty delighted about how convenient Comcars are for interstate travel.
Elsewhere in Parliament of course, the vibes are not so thrilled. While the government is deploying some verbal niceties - the new senators are “all God’s children” according to government Senate leader Eric Abetz - it is also stockpiling the tough talk.
As Tony Abbott said in Melbourne on Thursday: “Eventually, if not at the first attempt or even the second, this budget will pass, because no one has put up a credible alternative.” Treasurer Joe Hockey was similarly defiant, if a little light on detail. “There are always other ways that we can get some of these things happening,” he said. “For example, there are other ways we can do it.”
For all these ingenious plans, the government is now faced with a Senate where it will either need Labor, the Greens or five of God’s crossbenchers to pass key budget measures such as the GP co-payment, changes to pensions, welfare and university fees.
Usually in reality programs, the voting occurs throughout the series, with the audience forcing those they don’t dig off the show. With the Senate, the voting has already happened and the cast is here to stay for six years.
So like it or not, the government will need something more than bravado and crossed fingers to get the upper house show rating in its favour.
Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.