Nick Xenophon, the independent senator from South Australia, is scrabbling for a metaphor to describe how the nation’s upper house will look from July 1.
‘‘If it were a painting,’’ he says, ‘‘ I don’t think it would be a landscape. I don’t think it would be a Picasso. I think the Senate will be more like Blue Poles.’’
It's an intriguing comparison. The famous painting by Jackson Pollock, which hangs in Canberra’s National Gallery a short walk from the Federal Parliament, is a sprawling, chaotic masterpiece governed by eight poles leaning at different angles across the paint-spattered canvas.
Come July 1, when the newly elected upper house takes its place, the equivalent of those poles might well be the eight senators who’ll determine the fate of much of the Abbott government’s program between now and the next federal election.
The basic maths looming in the Senate is simple. The Coalition will have 33 senators; Labor and the Greens between them will have 35. In a 76-seat chamber, the government will need 39 votes - and that means six of the eight minor party and micro party senators - to get anything past a combined ALP-Green vote.
But if the maths is simple, the political calculus is not. Like the poles in Pollock’s painting, its already apparent the eight are going to lean in different, and not always predictable directions.
Among them are six individuals who will be new to the Parliament. These are the three Palmer United Party senators, Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania), Glenn Lazarus (Queensland), and Dio Wang (WA), who are grouped in a loose alliance with Ricky Muir, the Victorian from the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.
Two other newbies are David Leyonhjelm, the NSW senator representing the ultra-dry Liberal Democratic Party, and Bob Day, a South Australian representing Family First, who have formed an alliance on economic issues.
The last two are the veterans of the pack, Nick Xenophon, and John Madigan, a Victorian representing the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
While Day and Leyonhjelm see eye to eye on economic matters, Day and Madigan will have most in common on social issues. Xenophon is the most progressive of the group but shares some common ground with the protectionist Madigan on economic issues; the pair are close. Muir and the three PUP senators will align on many things, but certainly not all. And there are many – including some in the senior ranks of government - who already predict the early demise of the PUP as a voting bloc, because all that really holds it together is the giant personality of Clive Palmer rather than a clear philosophy. Long-time parliamentarians say they can’t recall a Senate so divided between a multiplicity of interests.
‘‘It's the largest [and most varied] crossbench since Federation, I’m pretty sure,’’ says Labor’s former house leader, Anthony Albanese.
Labor Senate leader Penny Wong, who’ll lead her side’s negotiations with the sprawling crossbench, says it will be a big test for the government’s Senate leadership team of Eric Abetz, George Brandis and Mitch Fifield.
“The signs aren’t good so far. This government doesn’t like explaining itself and what they are going to have to do with the crossbench is explain their position and explain why it needs support, which isn’t something they’ve been willing to do even with their backbench to date, let alone the crossbench.’’
For Abbott, whose primary instincts are those of the pugilist rather than the negotiator, the upper house mosaic represents a towering challenge. Already complaints are coming in from the minor party players that the government isn’t engaging them sufficiently on its legislative program, or pencilling in enough time for them to get on top of complex bills.
Leyonhjelm and Muir (the latter through his spokesman, Glenn Druery) say it’s madness for senators to have to start voting on legislation from July 7 or 8, when their staffing and office arrangements don’t officially commence until July 1.
But in recent days, the government has shown signs it might be starting to take the post-July 1 challenge more seriously. Two weeks ago, Treasurer Joe Hockey gave the Senate a hairy-chested warning that if it simply said no to everything it risked becoming irrelevant and “we either have to smash through that road block or the Australian people get the chance to change the government”.
That language, threatening a fresh election via the double dissolution route, has now changed.
This week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was far more conciliatory, telling the National Press Club after the government was handed its first double dissolution trigger that “just because you're given a trigger, doesn't mean you have to pull it”.
Behind the scenes, the government has put plans in place for a weekly meeting with the Palmer senators once they enter Parliament. Abetz, Brandis and Fifield will be key negotiators with senators, but leader of the lower house, Christopher Pyne, has been tapped to lead negotiations with Clive Palmer.
The Prime Minister’s office will also be closely involved, with Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin widely seen as anexpert after years working for Senate leaders in the Howard government. (Her assistant, Kate Raggatt, will be the PMO’s first point of contact with the crossbench.)
Pyne tells Fairfax the government will take a low-key approach to the crossbench, in contrast to the Gillard government’s more public negotiations, and hopes PUP will “instinctively” support much of the government’s program.
“My involvement with Clive over the years has convinced me that Clive shares many of the values of the Liberal party including support for freedom, liberty and the market with appropriate protections for those who can’t protect themselves,’’ Pyne says.
And Fifield, who as manager of government business in the Senate runs the “hour by hour” mechanics of the red chamber, stresses that dealing with the crossbench will be a team effort. "We treat every senator as an individual but we also respect that each party and each grouping can indicate to us the way that they like to be briefed. We will take individuals as we find them,'' he says. "The truth is we don't know what the dynamics of the new Senate will be like until they are here."
Exacerbating the concerns of the incoming crossbenchers is that for the first time in recent memory, the new Senate will start sitting in July, rather than August.
Shortly after the September election, Bob Day sought advice on whether he would be safe to book tickets and flights to the World Cup in Brazil. Having been told the Senate never sits in July, he made bookings for himself and his entire family.
Now he's alone in Australia while the rest of his clan enjoys the sights and sounds of Brazil. His wife, Bronte, will return to Australia one day before the July 7 swearing in.
Soccer aside, the significance of July sittings is that the newcomers won’t have their staff and offices officially in place until July 1, yet could be trying to digest government attempts to repeal the carbon tax – requiring a package of a dozen different bills - within days of taking their Senate places.
John Madigan told Fairfax on Wednesday that he’d met with Abbott only "once, perhaps twice" since the election, and had raised concerns about the budget which weren’t then communicated to the relevant minister.
‘‘I just question how fair dinkum they are, to sit down, to negotiate, to get to know you,’’ Madigan says. ‘‘It seems like it's always up to you to institute it...We are going to be held up under a bloody magnifying glass and I want to do my very best for people.’’
Glenn Druery, the man dubbed the "preference whisperer" for his skill in helping micro-parties trade preferences among themselves to get elected, voices similar concerns on behalf of Muir. (Muir’s been keeping a low profile in the wake of his recent disastrous TV interview with Mike Willesee).
Druery, likely to be Muir’s key staffer, says: "The government’s expecting a vote on some very important issues within the first week of Ricky taking his seat. How is he expected to do that? At this stage, my advice would be...do not vote in support of these issues, abstain, until we have the resources to adequately deal with the massive amounts of information that are going to be pouring through his office."
Leyonhjelm is also feeling like he’s standing at the bottom of a mountain, peering up at the peak without enough rope. ‘‘Bob [Day] and I are probably as organised as any of the six incomers,’’ says Leyonhjelm. ‘‘But it’s a big ask.’’
Day has a blunt warning for the major parties.
“I suspect the eight of us will get on really well and the major parties will want to be careful. I think the new Senate, with everyday Australians, will do really well,’’ he says.
The quietly spoken Palmer senator Dio Wang, for his part, sees his role – at least in the short term - as smoothing off some of the rougher edges off the Hockey budget. “It’s not about using power, it’s about using common sense and listening to our constituents,’’ he says.
The PUP group is already picking off Abbott government measures it won’t support – paid parental leave, the fuel excise increase, the $7 GP co-payment, an increase in the pension age – though its support for the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes look more assured.
In the longer term, government strategists believe the Palmer senators can be peeled away on individual pieces of legislation and privately question how long the colourful billionaire can hold hisflock together.
Coalition party bosses are also keenly aware that a double dissolution could well enhance, rather than decrease, the representation of micro-parties because all 12 senators from each state, not just six as in a regular election, would go to the polls.
In those circumstances the vote needed to secure a Senate quota is just 7.69 per cent of an entire state’s vote, rather than 14.28 per cent.
Combine that with the Coalition’s precipitous post-budget dip in the polls and the government looks increasingly willing to work with the crossbench rather than crash through it, as Abbott flagged on Thursday.
‘‘We will work with the Parliament that was elected to get them [the budget measures] through’’, he said.
Xenophon says the pace and intensity of work will be a shock for the new senators. ‘‘Even I found it a steep learning curve after being in the South Australian Parliament for 10 years.’’ But he wants the new Senate to work, and will have his door open to any of the newcomers. ‘‘I don’t think it's in the nation's interests for it to be rabble. If that turns out to be the case, we will be judged very harshly.’’