CANBERRA OBSERVED: by our national correspondentNews Weekly
New Senate ends Labor-Greens log-jam
, June 21, 2014
On July 1, the senators elected last September commence their six-year terms. In the new Senate line-up, the balance of power will no longer be held by the Greens but by a disparate group of senators from several small parties.
Despite the Abbott government’s decisive majority in the House of Representatives and increased representation in the Senate, it will still need the support of a majority of the eight minor party senators to get legislation through the upper house.
Senator-elect Bob Day AO
Under Australia’s Constitution, the Senate was established as a house of review, originally to protect the interests of the smaller states in the federation. However, it has evolved to give a voice to the quarter of Australia’s population which did not vote for the Coalition, Labor or the Greens.
Up until now, since last year’s federal election, Labor and the Greens have enjoyed an absolute majority in the Senate.
They have been prepared to use their numbers to thwart the Abbott government’s agenda, even on issues where the Coalition was elected with a clear mandate for change.
Over recent years, the de facto alliance of Labor and the Greens has given the Greens and their fellow-travellers inside the ALP unprecedented opportunities to drive their coercive utopian agenda at both the national and state levels.
The Greens effectively controlled Labor’s policy on the environment, asylum-seeker policy, sexuality and the human rights agenda, and in opposition to a number of Australia’s most important and productive industries, including mining, forestry, agriculture and energy.
In light of this, it is surprising that the Abbott government has been able to implement any part of its election mandate. Yet in a number of key areas, significant progress has been made.
The Prime Minister has stopped the flood of illegal boats coming to Australia from Indonesia, while at the same time maintaining good relations with our largest neighbour, despite the complications.
There is no doubt that when Mr Abbott said he would “turn back the boats” when safe to do so, many Indonesian (and Australian) officials considered it would be impossible. Yet it has been done.
Mr Abbott and his foreign minister, Julie Bishop, were able to convince the Indonesian government that Australia was simply protecting its borders from unauthorised incursions, just as Indonesia does.
Further, they were able to persuade the Indonesian government that, although it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, nor to the 1967 protocol on the status of refugees, it had signed the UN Anti-Trafficking Convention which envisages international action against people-trafficking networks which are smuggling people into Australia.
To have maintained good relations with Jakarta at a time of major political change in Indonesia is very important.
At about the same time as the new Senate meets in Canberra, the Indonesian people will vote for a successor to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has worked for close ties with Australia.
At the time of writing, the two candidates — the popular mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, and former army general Prabowo Subianto — are running neck and neck, and anti-Australian sentiment is easy to rouse during an election campaign.
Fortunately, this has not happened, as the candidates focus on the campaign against corruption, and who best can develop Indonesia’s massive natural resources.
Australia will need to build on the present good relations with President Yudhoyono, if it is to forge a closer relationship with this country of 230 million people, one of Australia’s major trading partners and one of its most popular tourist destinations.
The Abbott government has a number of key issues to present to the new Senate.
These include its Budget, a number of whose measures the ALP and the Greens are committed to oppose, as well as its election commitments to repeal the carbon tax and the mining tax.
Some of its Budget measures, including the Medicare co-payment, the government’s generous paid parental leave (PPL) scheme and restricted access to unemployment benefits, are quite unpopular with the electorate.
The government will have to compromise with the eight minor party senators on each of these issues.
Over the past month, almost every media commentator has concentrated on the bloc of four votes which Clive Palmer has created, consisting of three elected senators from the Palmer United Party and the Motoring Enthusiasts’ Rick Muir.
These votes, however, are insufficient for the Coalition to get its legislation through the Senate.
It must still talk to four formidable senators, John Madigan (Democratic Labour Party, Victoria), Bob Day AO (Family First, SA), Nick Xenophon (Independent, SA) and David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats, NSW).
While these senators have different political philosophies, they all profess to be concerned with the common good and the national interest, while protecting the interests of those who are marginalised.
Despite the difficulties, the Abbott government needs to see the new Senate as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle to its agenda.