29 August 2016
by Karen Middleton
As the new senators arrived at Parliament House on Tuesday for three days of political induction, some were celebrating their anonymity.
“Hi, I’m Murray Watt,” one Labor senator-elect for Queensland announced brightly, sparing journalists the need to scan clutched pages of headshots.
Later, Watt told Radio National what he found most surprising was that he was there at all, “sitting in the same room as Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and Pat Dodson and a whole bunch of other people”.
“I never expected to find myself in that situation,” he said. “But it was a really good day.”
While some of the 14 newcomers may be able to tuck quietly inside a major party, those on the crossbench are unlikely to remain low profile for long. And some, such as those Watt mentioned, arrive with profiles that are already well and truly established.
The Coalition has learnt the lesson of 2013 and its aftermath. Stung by a failure to properly build relationships with crossbenchers after its election win – and subsequently watching its 2014 budget disintegrate after too few refused to vote for it – this version of the government has changed its approach.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has designated a team of his own staff, led by former chief media adviser David Bold, to manage those crossbench relationships.
That liaison is in its early stages. It will develop into full-blown negotiations as the government begins laying out legislation and the senators put forward their various demands in return.
A government spokesman confirmed that when the new parliament convenes next week, three industrial bills are its top priority.
They are the two bills Turnbull used to justify the double-dissolution election – legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission and separately establish a registered organisations commission to regulate the activities of union officials – and a new bill fulfilling an election promise to prevent a union takeover of volunteer brigades in the Victorian Country Fire Authority.
Government sources say Turnbull is confident he’ll secure enough crossbench support to pass the first two – thereby avoiding the need for the combined chambers’ joint sitting that the double-dissolution win allows. They say he’s also hopeful on the third.
Crossbench senators Derryn Hinch and Family First’s Bob Day have said they’ll back the CFA legislation. The three Nick Xenophon Team senators and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm are offering in-principle support. That makes six of the nine votes required to turn the Coalition’s 30 seats into a majority in the 76-seat chamber. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents four more and the government plans to keep talking to them.
This week, however, the new senators have been focused most on absorbing the practicalities of their new jobs during their two-and-a-half days of lessons on actually being a senator.
After being shown how to set up an office, there was a presentation on the senate’s role as set out in the constitution. They heard about the powers vested in senators and the protections afforded them and learnt how parliamentary privilege works – something with which they’re likely to have to wrangle almost immediately.
Among next week’s first items of business, Labor will ask the senate to refuse the Australian Federal Police permission to use documents seized from parliament’s computer system in investigating leaks about the government’s national broadband network.
The new senators also had the workings of the register of senators’ interests explained, to ensure they declared all assets, investments, gifts and anything else that might be seen to compromise them if kept secret.
Day one wound up with a beginners’ lesson in senate procedures – the standing orders, the role of the president, and the rules of engagement, including what happens if you break them. On Wednesday, they moved on to how a bill travels through parliament and then the senate’s role as a financial scrutineer.
The new senators had the restrictions on their collective power explained in relation to economic and financial matters – how the upper house is not allowed to generate or amend tax or appropriations bills or seek to change any law to increase any proposed tax or charge.
The senators were instructed on the scope and role of the senate committee system and introduced to the resources upon which they can draw – the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Australian National Audit Office and the Parliamentary Library.
Their schooling wound up with a session on using the procedures of the senate and how to keep track of the chamber’s business, day by day and hour by hour, to avoid missing a vote and to know exactly what is being voted on whenever the bells are ringing.
After they’ve dealt with its industrial legislation, the government will be asking these senators to back what it’s calling an omnibus bill of savings measures worth $6.5 billion – all measures, it says provocatively, that Labor has previously said it would support.
That bill is still being drafted. Its structure is posing some challenges, given the constitutional obligation to put changes to tax in standalone legislation, so it will take a little longer.
The government is also keen to be seen to be allowing the crossbenchers time to absorb and consider the detail, not trying to ram things through without respect for process.
But even without a bill, the horsetrading has begun.
Senator Nick Xenophon is firing an early warning shot over what his team’s support will cost. “I’ve made it clear to the government that I cannot in good conscience support any budget repair measures unless and until there is a satisfactory package of measures for Arrium,” he says, referring to the struggling South Australian steelworks under threat of closure.
This weekend in a speech in Queensland, Turnbull is seeking to reinforce his own argument that savings are needed urgently to insulate the economy against any coming storm.
Treasurer Scott Morrison made similar arguments on Thursday with his own speech on economic security. In setting a five- to seven-year deadline for the budget repair job, he broke the cardinal rule of treasurers, mentioning both the “r” word – recession – and another of Paul Keating’s now infamous phrases that tends to send a jitter through the markets.
“I do not want my kids to know what a recession is like and everything that goes along with that, and I’m sure no one else does either,” Morrison said.
“I recognise that in the absence of a ‘recession we had to have’ or the threat of becoming a banana republic, that achieving necessary change will be more frustrating and more difficult. But it is no less necessary, and achieving it in this way is far better than the alternative.”
He had a message for the crossbenchers and those who voted for them: “We must keep our doors open. We must keep the drawbridge down.”
He was talking about trade, investment and immigration.
Some foreign observers may puzzle at the message, delivered as it was by the same treasurer who has just rejected two Chinese investment bids for the New South Wales electricity company Ausgrid and who, as a former immigration minister, strongly advocates the continued indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees in offshore camps.
Morrison went on to acknowledge the concerns of those he said wanted to believe they could “jump under the Doona” and hide from the world’s problems.
“We must face up to their concerns and address them,” Morrison said. “Many Australians feel the system no longer works for them and indeed works against them in their view. It is politically popular to endorse this sentiment. There is great danger and recklessness in taking such a cynical approach. As a government, we know that trade, foreign investment and positive, well-controlled migration focused on bringing those to Australia who come to make a contribution, rather than take one, creates jobs, drives growth and always has.”
The Labor opposition is making noises in favour of a broadly bipartisan approach to the economy, albeit by producing its own alternative set of proposed savings worth, it says, $8 billion and comprising measures the government has previously rejected.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the treasurer needs to be prepared to compromise and stop being a “whinger”.
“No amount of bad-tempered foot-stamping is going to fix the nation’s problems,” he says. “I think that Mr Morrison and Mr Turnbull need to go to a quiet place, get over the tantrum they’ve been having since the election, and start governing.”
Senior government sources believe Labor will, eventually, back most of the Coalition’s proposed savings measures. The view is based on a belief that Labor under Shorten would rather see the unpopular budget repair measures undertaken before it gets back into office.
On the face of it, they’re all professing to be furiously bipartisan.
“We would love to work with the opposition,” Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer told ABC Radio ahead of Morrison’s speech on Thursday. “We will work with the opposition, we will work with the Greens, we will work with the crossbenchers. We will work with anybody who wants to repair the budget.”
Morrison has been spruiking the same. “We will work with them all,” he told Perth’s Radio 6PR. “I think there are arguably fewer moving parts in this senate and I would hope there is more sympathy in this senate for fixing the problem of the budget.”
But the moving parts have ideas of their own.
Some oppose the Coalition’s plans for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage and are suggesting they won’t support the required enabling legislation.
And some want to resurrect former prime minster Tony Abbott’s abandoned plans to water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
On this, Turnbull is unmoved.
“We have higher and more urgent budget priorities,” he told broadcaster Alan Jones on Thursday.
Next week, the various priorities start colliding. Once again, and perhaps more spectacularly than ever, the senate is set to become the chamber of high stakes, duelling mandates and forceful personalities.