Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded

23 March 2015

Quirky fortune got David Leyonhjelm elected to the Senate in 2013.  Now he’s among eighteen crossbench Senators holding the balance of power there, although some people put that number at only eight.  So you might wonder what the fortune was for Leyonhjelm, a Liberal Democrat from New South Wales, whose name is pronounced “Lion-helm” and can be remembered if you think of a “lion at the helm”.

When Australians cast their votes at the last Federal election, in 2013, the Liberal Democrats won 9.5 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW.  This was well above their second-best share of the vote, about 3.5 per cent in South Australia.  At the previous election, in 2010, they won only about 2.3 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW, and then a similar share in Queensland.

How was this surge from 2.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent in NSW possible?  Some people argued that, when parties and groups were drawn to select the order in which they’d be listed on Senate ballot papers in different states, the Liberal Democrats were lucky enough to draw first place in NSW.  Many NSW voters saw the name “Liberal” in first place on the Senate ballot paper in that state and voted “1” in the box under the name – they presumably thought that they were voting for the Liberals and Nationals in the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, when in fact they were voting for Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats!

This outcome really peeved the Coalition, and particularly the Liberal Party.  I actually thought that I heard speculation of the Liberals apparently seeking to legislate to prevent the use of “Liberal” in the name of any other political group – if true, this sounds petty.

Nevertheless, Leyonhjelm is now among eighteen crossbenchers holding the balance of power in the Senate.  But some people put that number of crossbenchers at only eight, because the Greens hold ten of the eighteen Senate seats not held by either the Coalition parties or the Labor Party, and the Greens are more likely than not to vote with Labor in opposing the Coalition Government on any piece of legislation.

Even so, the Coalition parties only need the votes of six crossbench Senators to get legislation passed.  In a sense, they can afford to ignore Labor and the Greens.  And they’ve managed to get some bills passed, such as the abolition of controversial carbon and mining taxes.  But they’ve failed to get other things passed so far, and it seems frustrating.

My point about Leyonhjelm is that he’s spoken about how the Coalition’s ministers deal with the crossbenchers in seeking to get the votes needed to pass legislation.  Late last year, I saw Leyonhjelm on television, and he said that some ministers were better than others in terms of persuading the crossbenchers and negotiating with them.  He cited Senator Mathias Cormann as the best in that respect, and he also praised Scott Morrison, although he didn’t mention any other names in either a good or bad light.  And last week he reiterated his praise for Cormann and Morrison in a report in a major newspaper.

Admittedly, Leyonhjelm is only one of the Senate crossbenchers, and he can’t necessarily speak for the rest of them.  I don’t know if the other crossbenchers have spoken similarly about the Coalition’s ministers.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have similar stories to tell, if they choose to say as much publicly.

The Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded to support legislation, but only if the Coalition plays its cards right.  At least one crossbencher has already indicated that Cormann and Morrison have clearly done some things right.  What have they done right that other ministers have done wrong?  Maybe the way that Cormann and Morrison have gone about their business would need to be used as a guide for their ministerial colleagues.


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