Our parliament is a system characterised by extreme power and total weakness in the House of Representatives and deals with the crossbench and unpredictable luck in the Senate.
Majority parliamentary government crushes the life out of any parliamentary opposition wherever it might come from. Scott Morrison's all-powerful cabinet has four potential groups of parliamentary opponents in the House of Representatives, but each of them is relatively powerless.
The most obvious one is the Labor Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, and his team is to be condemned to absolute weakness. There is next to nothing it can do to influence government legislation. The symbolic power of the government's mandate is such that on most occasions the Opposition is not even game to oppose major legislation but capitulates to avoid government criticism. A major review of its own 2019 election policies seems likely to encourage it to pull back from anything seemingly unpopular.
The second set of potential opponents are the six members on the cross bench. They can use parliament as a forum for ideas, but they have been frozen out of any real influence by the majority election result. Three of them, Rebekha Sharkie, Zali Steggall and Helen Haines, represent traditional Liberal electorates which have chosen moderation and fresh ideas over major party representation. Bob Katter represents rural distance from the Nationals, Adam Bandt Green urban disaffection from Labor and Andrew Wilkie dissatisfaction with both major parties. Despite their differences they are all in the same boat.
The third group is made up of independently minded Liberal backbenchers. The costs to them of crossing the floor to vote against the government are just too great for most to consider it. Their gripes with government policies, often quite considerable, must be fought out behind party closed doors. Party conventions restrict any public comment, other than through anonymous leaks, on these internal discussions. The cabinet majority, whose secret deliberations are also protected by convention, always prevails.
Finally, there is the junior partner, the Nationals, whose power is enshrined in another secret deal, the post-election Coalition agreement, which never sees the light of day, despite attempts in the courts by the Opposition to force it into the open. The Nationals make a lot of public noise to try to placate their rural constituency, but they too, bar the contents of the Coalition agreement, can't force their will on the Liberal cabinet majority.
These factors combined make the House of Representatives an uninteresting place in which the cabinet enforces its will against internal and external opposition. Power is centralised in the hands of a small group on the government benches.
The situation in the Senate is starkly different. Serendipity - that is finding value in unexpected places by sheer luck - is a good description of the cross bench. Independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, for instance, is fortunate to be in the Senate and doubly fortunate to find herself in a position where she can influence government legislation. We are fortunate that she has the personal character and experience which makes her a welcome presence and that she possesses the values which she applies to the legislation before her. Tasmania is especially fortunate.
But there is a sting in the tail. The community is unfortunate that the outcome of crucial legislation, like Newstart, Medevac, cashless welfare cards and much more, is determined by serendipity. What if the deciding vote was held by someone else but Lambie, someone with different values? Should our system put so much power in the hands of one person?
Senator Lambie is one of six crossbench senators, the others being the two One Nation senators from Queensland, Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, the two Centre Alliance senators from South Australia, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, and the conservative former Liberal from South Australia, Senator Cory Bernardi.
Remember that a parliamentary system which depends on serendipity potentially has a big downside.
The government needs four of these six votes to pass its legislation. One Nation and Bernardi tend to stick with the Morrison government, leaving Centre Alliance and Lambie to engage in negotiations. Centre Alliance is a micro-political party, but while Lambie has a network she is much more like a lone independent.
Centre Alliance plays a negotiating middle-of-the-road role like the former Australian Democrats and their former leader Senator Nick Xenophon. They can also sometimes play the home state card to attract specific benefits for their own state. Lambie does too; but she is harder to categorise, always a strength because she can keep the government guessing and is harder to dismiss as just a Labor/Green figure in disguise.
In her first term she supported the far-sighted Future of Financial Advice laws and helped save some of the remaining Clean Energy mechanisms from the rampaging Abbott government. She tried to help children on Nauru but found herself in the minority.
Now Lambie swings backwards and forwards on issues like random drug tests on welfare recipients (opposed without big concessions), cashless welfare cards (supports), Newstart (supports extending allowable hours of paid employment) and repealing the Medevac legislation (undeclared). This leaves Coalition government supporters grumbling, while Labor/Green supporters feel they are just getting crumbs from the table. Wider community opinion about her probably varies from irritant and upstart to voice of reason and compassion.
The role of the Senate crossbench is totally unpredictable, the price we pay for having an upper house of parliament not dominated by the four big parties.
We may applaud the presence and impact of the crossbench; but remember that a parliamentary system which depends on serendipity potentially has a big downside too.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University