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Turnbull's Senate challenge is about more than numbers



When Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister he began to introduce a new culture into government relations with the Senate cross-bench but then quickly signalled his intention to reform the Senate voting system.

Pauline HansonThat immediately ruined the relationship and after that the government made no real effort to pass contentious legislation, including the double dissolution trigger bills, through the Senate.

Turnbull had hoped to bring about a new Senate with most of the so-called troublemakers gone. However, the new cross-bench seems certain to be not just larger, in fact a record size, but even more diverse.

There will be two micro parties, the Xenophon team and Hanson's One Nation, not just Palmer United, to deal with, one of which should be more centrist, but the other more unpredictably extreme. There will also be Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch and possibly others from the old cross-bench.

Commentary since the election has concentrated primarily on how the numbers in the new Senate will inevitably make it extremely difficult for the Turnbull government. A better focus would be to look back at Senate-government interaction over the past two years for some positive lessons for Turnbull about what actually happened. It was not just a numbers game.

The Abbott government caused many of its own problems with the Senate. Prime among them were the broken promises and incoherent explanations contained in the ill-fated 2014 budget. However, while Abbott himself was part of the problem some of his errors he shared with previous prime ministers.

One common mistake made by governments formed in the House of Representatives is to believe the mantra that the winner takes all. A second is to believe their own publicity about having a mandate for their policies based on election victory. That carries no weight at all with the Senate.

A third is to accept that Senate negotiations should be left to the government leaders in the Senate. In the last Parliament the Abbott government was often weighed down by poor Senate leadership. Among Senate-based ministers Matthias Cormann was widely recognised for his success in building relationships and should now be the Prime Minister's closest adviser on such matters.


"This new cross-bench will contain some formidable media operators — Xenophon, Lambie, Hanson and Hinch — with much better exposure in the media than just about any of the government senators."


Any signs of over-confidence in his Senate dealings will hurt him just as it brought the Abbott government undone. Luckily for Turnbull because of his near-death experience at the last election he may now be in the right frame to work with the Senate in a spirit of compromise.

The first thing the government should take time to decide is just who the key figures in this new Senate will be. The obvious place to start will be Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson as leaders of their teams. Turnbull must hope that these two micro-parties hold together. If the virtually unknown individuals who will come into the Senate on the coat-tails of Hanson and Xenophon turn out to be independent spirits then passing disputed legislation may be much more difficult.

Like last time the dynamics of this Senate cross-bench will constantly change, however. Reputations will rise and fall. The lesson of the last Senate was that some cross-benchers grew into their roles as they became more experienced and better-known. The new Senators have earned their stripes personally with the general public which will expect the Turnbull government to treat the Senate cross-bench with respect, transparency and consistency.

The government should pay close attention to the cross-bench staff who will do much of the day-to-day listening and information-gathering for their senators. The first months of the previous Senate brought considerable staff turnover as inexperienced Senators settled in and found their own voices.

The tenor of media coverage of the Senate will be also crucial. This new cross-bench will contain some formidable media operators — Xenophon, Lambie, Hanson and Hinch — with much better exposure in the media than just about any of the government senators. In the previous parliament the government lost the Senate media wars but it must try to prevail this time.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, Senate



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Existing comments

There is an alternative for the government to dealing with the cross bench, and that is to deal with the opposition. Both the government and the opposition have taken a hiding at this election, and both need to win back the confidence of those who previously supported them but have now gone to the minor and micro parties. By agreeing to actually and jointly address the issues that caused such a large proportion of the electorate to reject both of them, they might win back the confidence they seek. Shorten has the skill and experience that it would take, so too, I think, has Turnbull, but would the right wing crazies in the government (or for that matter, the right wing crazies in the opposition) allow that to happen?

Ginger Meggs | 01 August 2016  

Great to see you get elected great work on anti discrimination don dale guards used very reasonable force they could have been very rougher

Jack c Henderson | 01 August 2016  

I hope Turnbull adapts to politics in the 21st Century with a mature approach to minor parties & independents based on respect. Respect, however, will need to be extend by all In his government. Clearly, during the election campaign Lambie felt aggrieved by an insult, real or imagined, that had been directed at her by Bernardi during the previous Parliament. During the "hung" Parliament in NSW between 1991-95 some government backbenchers would attack the independents, jointly & severally, & then be surprised that those same independents would vote against a government Bill five minutes later.....and that was in the 20th Century!

Paul Crittenden | 02 August 2016  

When will the Senate be announced - to be still waiting to know who has been successful etc. etc. is not very democratic

Brenda Coughlan | 02 August 2016  

I thank John for the general practicality of his articles in Eureka Street. When I studied Political Science at Melbourne University in the early 1960s we agreed about the misleading claims made about "mandate" and I we should be cautious about accepting government claims to have a mandate about this or that. We also had then, as you have now, a strong belief in counting and analysing the votes. When the current Prime Minister called a double dissolution election he must have been well aware of what that did to quotas for Senate elections. Now he has to live with the results. I think it is good for us to have a wide range of Senate members. Likewise for House of Reps.

Gerard Costigan | 04 August 2016  

Who knows what Turnbull expected the Senate results to be or why, but he surely couldn't have imagined what actually happened. Did he expect the votes for minor/micro parties to exhaust? It would be interesting to know how much the broad cross bench was a result of voters for minors directing their preferences to other minors, or voters for one or other of the major parties directing preferences to minors before the other major party.

Ginger Meggs | 08 August 2016  

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