CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Senator Steve Fielding's political challenge
, April 4, 2009
Family First's challenge is to build a sufficiently large constituency to outvote the Greens at the next election.Family First's Victorian Senator Steve Fielding likes to portray himself as the "anti-politician" - the boy from the Melbourne working-class suburb of Reservoir who won a seat in Parliament against the odds and who is now standing up for the plight of the ordinary folk in the community.
On the one hand, he claims he doesn't know much about the tough horse-trading negotiations of politics, that he doesn't have the resources to produce detailed policy alternatives, and that his ideas are based on common sense rather than polling or advice from bureaucrats.
On the other hand, Senator Fielding becomes deeply aggrieved when the Government does not take him or his policies seriously.Frustrated
Like the former Howard Government, the Rudd Government has grown frustrated at the Victorian senator who holds an enviable position on the cross benches, where he, the Greens and South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon currently hold sway.
The recent decision by Senator Fielding to block the Rudd Government's so-called "alcopops tax" brought the Victorian senator back into the full glare of the public spotlight.
Only a few months after agreeing to pass the very same bill to stop teenage binge-drinking, Senator Fielding changed his mind and dumped the bill because the Government refused to ban alcohol commercials on TV, as they have done for cigarettes.
Along with the loss of $1.6 billion in revenue over the next four years were a series of measures worth $50-odd million extracted by fellow cross-benchers, the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon, for public education and other programs to help curb problem and binge drinking.
Senator Fielding was heavily criticised for throwing out the good bits as well as the bad bits of the alcopops tax and for giving the liquor industry a billion-dollar windfall.
The Victorian senator had wanted a total ban on alcohol advertising during TV sports programs - something politically impossible for the Rudd Government to agree to, because it would have inflicted damage on the leading sports bodies and the already bleeding TV networks at the same time.
When Senator Fielding boasted afterwards that he had "broken the back of the alcohol industry", it was greeted with a high degree of scepticism by the media which has always rejected his socially conservative views.
Having a social conservative in the Senate, who can put the brakes on the major political parties and the Greens, is no bad thing. But Senator Fielding is no Brian Harradine.
Whereas Tasmania's independent Senator Harradine was cunning and cautious and understood the political art of the possible, Senator Fielding lacks the Tasmanian senator's experience.
Instead of extracting a small win, his gamble means he loses everything, as he did when he asked for $4 billion for the unemployed or when he rejected the alcopops tax outright.
Elected unexpectedly in 2004 on the back of preference deals negotiated with the DLP and Labor, Senator Fielding is regularly reminded of how few primary votes (56,376) he represents.
He succeeded at that election, partly through the demise of the Australian Democrats, but mainly because of a collapse in the Green vote and his ability to capitalise on the Greens' extreme policies to build a public profile.
Despite this, Fielding only managed to lift Family First's percentage to 3.02 per cent in Victoria at the 2007 election.
Fielding needs to build on this base, but appears to have the best chance of re-election in a double dissolution.
For this reason, Senator Fielding does not worry about defeating Government legislation.
But, unlike Senator Xenophon and Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce, he has not used his power in the Senate for anything specifically for his home state.
Finally, in his efforts to "mainstream" his party, Senator Fielding has tried to have a say on every issue.
Oddly, and in a strange irony, since the Rudd Government has been in power, it is the Greens who have been pragmatic and careful in their demands, usually asking for minor concessions to legislation rather than the implementation of their radical policy agenda.
Instead of being politically independent and focussing on his core issues, Senator Fielding has tried to become a one-man opposition, fighting on the full range of public issues.
Senator Fielding had no choice but to oppose the alcopops tax for his own political credibility, even if it meant some short-term criticism from the media.
But, having made that decision, he now has to concentrate on his own constituency, mending bridges with his supporters and his power base, who expected he would oppose the liquor industry.
His challenge is to build a sufficiently large constituency to outvote the Greens at the next election.