Nothing new in Senate crossbench power

30 August 2014


Since Australians voted for a change of government in September last year, much has been made of the power of crossbenchers, meaning minor parties and Independents, in the Senate.  Whereas once the Senate might well have merely been a rubber stamp for governments in passing whatever laws they liked in the House the Representatives, now the Senate is a kind of handbrake, and governments must negotiate with crossbenchers who hold the balance of power.  And the Coalition, which won the election last September, has a plethora of balance-of-power Senators to deal with.

But there’s nothing new in this notion.  Indeed it’s been part of Australia’s political scene for decades, at least at Federal level.  The difference now is that, instead of one alternative political force or sometimes two alternative forces over time, there are numerous minor parties, including at least one so-called “micro-party” which is much smaller than many minor parties, with what many people consider weird or exotic names.

People often vote for minor parties out of disillusionment with the major parties.  Because parties win Senate seats based on the size of their vote across any state or territory, at least in theory, minor parties will more often than not win a few Senate seats at election time.  Usually, with six Senate seats per state up for grabs at each election, the Labor Party and the Coalition often win five seats between them in any state, while a minor party often wins the sixth seat.  As such, it’s not easy for governments to obtain Senate majorities.

For most of the 1980s, the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate.  Both the Fraser and Hawke governments had to negotiate various things with the Democrats in order to pass legislation.  This continued into the 90s, with the Democrats generally holding the balance of power, although sometimes other crossbench Senators emerged.  The Hawke and Keating and Howard governments all had to deal with them regularly.  After 2000, the Democrats dropped off in popularity, and the Greens filled the void left behind.

The 2004 Federal election saw the Howard Coalition Government win a Senate majority by a quirk of fate.  Although the Coalition parties supposedly work together, they’ve often run against each other in Senate contests at election time.  And in Queensland, where the Liberals and Nationals ran separately until 2010, the Liberals won enough votes to win three seats out of the possible six, while the Nationals, whose support has often been stronger in Queensland than in other states, also won a seat.  Had the Liberals and Nationals run under a joint banner, they’d probably have won only three seats, which they’d usually win when the voters liked them, but on this occasion they won four – this gave the Coalition a one-seat majority in the Senate, and John Howard became the first Prime Minister to control the Senate since Malcolm Fraser in 1981.

After the defeat of the Howard Government at the 2007 election, the Senate went back to its normal balance-of-power status, forcing governments to negotiate with crossbenchers again, especially the Greens, who held most of the crossbench seats.  Due to the perceived unpopularity of the major party leaders, support for minor parties and Independents has grown in recent years, leading to a blowout in crossbenchers after last September’s election.

Nowadays you’ve got eighteen crossbench Senators.  There are ten seats held by the Greens, three by the Palmer United Party, and five held by others including a Liberal Democrat and a Motoring Enthusiast – with names like these, it’s no wonder that the Senate now has been compared with the crowd in the cantina scene in the science-fiction film STAR WARS!

The Abbott Government needs six of the eighteen crossbench Senators to support its laws.  But it won’t always get them, as has been shown of late.  In this situation there’ll be much negotiating and horse-trading on.