Crossbench negotiations won’t end soon

21 December 2015


The change in leadership in September might’ve been, at least at this stage, the best thing to have happened to the Federal Coalition of late.  With the unpopular Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, polls consistently showed the Coalition heading for a major election defeat after a single term in office.  But after Malcolm Turnbull challenged Abbott for the leadership and beat him, the Coalition’s fortunes have turned around.  Now another Coalition election win looks beyond question.

But one thing won’t change after the next election – the need for the Prime Minister, whoever it is, to negotiate with the Senate, where minor parties and Independents hold the balance of power.  Currently, the Coalition needs support from six out of eighteen Senate crossbenchers to pass legislation.  After the next election, these numbers might change, but the need for crossbench negotiations in the Senate won’t end soon.

To understand the Senate situation, it’s worth noting when the last few Federal elections have happened, in reverse order.  They’ve been held in 2013, 2010, 2007, and 2004.  The reason for noting these election years will be explained shortly.

Elections generally are for all seats in the House of Representatives and a majority of seats in the Senate.  I say “a majority” advisedly, because in theory election include half-Senate elections, meaning half of all Senate seats going up for grabs, but this isn’t totally accurate.  This is because Parliament was set up before the territories, namely the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, even existed, let alone had representation.

Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have two Senators each, and the Coalition and the Labor Party always win those four seats.  Mind you, had Abbott still been leading, I’d have rated the Coalition’s ACT Senate seat as vulnerable, with the ACT considered less conservative than other parts of Australia, as well as less tolerant of Abbott.  But under Turnbull, the Coalition’s ACT seat looks safe.

The terms of state-based Senators end at every second election, with half of them facing voters on a rotating basis, hence the description of half-Senate elections.  Therefore the Senators who won seats at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters at the next election, due next year, but at the one after that, probably coming in 2019.  These Senators include the popular South Australian Independent Nick Xenophon, originally elected in 2007 before being elected again in 2013, so he’s not facing the voters next year.

The Senators who won seats at the 2010 election, the one prior to the last, will face the voters next year.  So we should note what happened with the Senate in 2010, specifically in the states.  The results back then show the Coalition now having little ground available to make up in the Senate.

The 2010 election saw mixed Senate results in the states, which have six seats each up for grabs at election time.  In Tasmania, Labor won three seats to the Coalition’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.  In Victoria, the Coalition and Labor won two seats apiece, with the Greens winning one seat, while another minor player, John Madigan, also won a seat.  In every other state, the Coalition won three seats to Labor’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.

Usually the Coalition and Labor together win five out of six available Senate seats in each state, with minor players often winning the sixth seat.  The stronger of the major parties will likely win three seats in those circumstances, though this varies from election to election and from state to state.

As such, the Coalition can’t increase its Senate numbers by much at the next election.  It’s defending three Senate seats apiece in four states, and it can only improve its numbers by one in both Victoria and Tasmania, where it won only two seats apiece.  I tip the Coalition to pick up those extra seats in those two states, but it won’t get a vote strong enough in any state to win a fourth seat, notwithstanding Turnbull’s popularity.

The Coalition will probably gain its third Victorian seat at the expense of Madigan, who snuck into the Senate on preferences in 2010.  Its third Tasmanian seat will probably come at the expense of Labor, which won three Tasmanian seats in 2010 but is now on the nose with voters.  But this would still leave the Coalition, assuming that it wins the election overall and three Senate seats in every state, needing maybe four crossbench Senate votes to pass legislation.

Turnbull’s rise has left Labor in such bad shape that it’ll probably lose ground in the Senate.  But Labor might only lose one seat in Tasmania, as it won two seats in every other state and isn’t likely to improve or worsen.

The Greens will hold most of their seats, as their vote remains quite strong across the country.  I rate them vulnerable in Queensland, where their vote seem less as in other states, but they may hold, as the major parties together hold five seats there already and no other minor players look that appealing.

Delicate Senate negotiations, with the kind of people once described by one of Turnbull’s predecessors as “unrepresentative swill”, look like continuing beyond the next election.  The rise of Turnbull as Prime Minister hasn’t made this possibility less likely as such.



By-election forgotten as Liberal fortunes turn

30 October 2015


The surprise leadership coup of last month, which saw the Liberal Party dump Tony Abbott as leader and Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull, seemed to put a Federal by-election in Western Australia almost in the shade.  The by-election, in the seat of Canning, on the fringe of Perth, was rated as a test of Abbott’s leadership, and some pundits were predicting that the Liberals would lose the seat.  But when they dumped Abbott for Turnbull just days out from the by-election, their fortunes seemed to turn around to the point where the by-election meant little.

Brought about by the untimely death of Liberal MP Don Randall, the Canning by-election should’ve been rated a non-event in the general scheme of things.  The Liberals held the seat by a margin of 11.8 per cent over the Labor Party.  Such a margin normally wouldn’t rate as a winnable seat.

However, the unpopularity of Abbott made Canning look vulnerable.  Opinion polls were showing swings against the Liberals potentially as high as the margin in Canning, which would’ve been disastrous for them and for Abbott’s leadership.  Abbott had never been popular – he was only elected Prime Minister because Labor had become so consumed with infighting that voters were put off.

Many people had long been predicting that Abbott’s leadership would be in trouble, and it looked like the issue would come to a head after the by-election, even if the Liberals had won it.  Governments sometimes get kicks up the rear end at by-elections, if voters are angry enough with them and want to show their anger before general elections come.  In any case, I wasn’t among those expecting a challenge to Abbott, simply because I didn’t see any viable alternatives.

I’d felt that the Liberals would never turn to Turnbull, who holds views on various issues, such as climate change, which are firmly at odds with Liberal MPs.  There was talk of the Liberals turning to either deputy leader Julie Bishop or senior minister Scott Morrison in place of Abbott.  But I didn’t see either as up to the job.  I think that Bishop isn’t cut out for leadership – she lacks the charisma as a speaker, and doesn’t make people snap to attention when they hear her.  As for Morrison, I rate him a better communicator who can get his message across well, but he’s only been in Parliament since 2007 and he probably needs more time before he’s ready for leadership.  Therefore, before the leadership coup, I didn’t see anyone else as able to replace Abbott – hence my surprise when the leadership coup happened, especially with the Canning by-election just days away.

Some people wondered if voters in Canning would react badly to the leadership coup.  Voters across the country had become sick of leadership changes in recent years, especially by Labor, whose MPs seemed to panic over leadership time and again.

In the end, the by-election result was a win to the Liberals, despite a swing of 6-7 per cent against them, which was perhaps in line with predictions.  I’d actually predicted the swing to be a bit larger, especially as by-elections often enable voters to give incumbent governments a collective kick up the rear end if they’re unhappy with them.

I suspect that had Abbott still been leading when the by-election happened, the eventual result would’ve set off leadership speculation in the media.  Given that opinion polls seemed to be showing a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor on a nationwide basis, a swing in that range in Canning would’ve set the hares running, even though the Liberals would’ve held the seat.

But the leadership coup looks to have been a blessing for the Liberals.  Several opinion polls have shown their support turning around since Turnbull became leader, and they’ve gone from facing election defeat after a single term in office to looking like they’ll clearly win the next election, due in about twelve months’ time.

Until the coup, the Canning by-election was looking likely to give Labor a boost, despite voters’ misgivings about Labor’s performance.  But now it seems as if the by-election has been forgotten as Turnbull has made Liberal fortunes turn in a big way.

How long Turnbull’s popularity lasts will be worth looking at.  Many Liberals still believe in doing things that Abbott was aiming for before he lost the leadership.  Turnbull might change a few things, but he might still believe in other things.  The challenge will be whether Turnbull can persuade voters to accept what they’ve thought to be unpopular policies or plans, at least since the unpopular Abbott had been in charge.


Turnbull’s rise triggers climate change

27 September 2015

Massive dissatisfaction with the Abbott Coalition Government probably had countless people expecting a leadership change.  But there were too many factors making most people, including myself, doubt that it’d happen so soon – hence the sense of shock when it happened just under a fortnight ago, and just after the second anniversary of the election of the Abbott Government to power.

No sensible person would argue that Tony Abbott was ever popular during his time as Liberal Party leader, whether as Opposition Leader from 2009 or as Prime Minister from 2013.  In fact, most people had long disliked him.  They ended up voting for him because the Labor Party became distracting from governing because of internal leadership squabbles, and he’d done a good job of making the voters doubt the competency in office of Labor, particularly regarding economic management.  But despite winning an election, Abbott never had voters warming to him, and once the main players in Labor’s troubles had departed politics, people no longer had anything reminding them of why they’d voted for Abbott and the opinion polls began to show it.

Having lost office to an unpopular rival, Labor was somehow able to benefit from this scenario, and found itself consistently ahead of the Liberal-National Coalition in the opinion polls, despite having done nothing to attract the voters.  The Coalition made some mistakes in terms of policies and explaining the reasons behind them to voters, but these were all that Labor needed to lead in the polls.

However, despite the unpopularity of the Coalition and especially of Abbott, there was doubt over whether a leadership change would happen in the Coalition.  Everybody talked about Malcolm Turnbull as a better alternative, and more popular with the voters, but the majority of Coalition MPs couldn’t abide him.  And no other Coalition MPs even looked like they had what it took to replace Abbott, at least in the short term.

So there would’ve been some surprise when Turnbull quit his post as Communications Minister and moved to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership.  He ended up beating Abbott 54-44 in a vote among Liberal MPs, which wasn’t quite an even split but also wasn’t a comfortable margin.  The Liberals were clearly divided over Turnbull, and time will tell whether he can gain the trust of those who voted against him.

Turnbull is seen as too close to Labor on certain issues.  He’s a firm believer in reducing environmental pollution and tackling climate change, which the Coalition is arguably divided over, with many Coalition MPs dismissing the whole notion of climate change as a myth.  He’s more tolerant of same-sex marriage than other Coalition MPs, and he’s long championed the notion of constitutionally changing Australia to make the country a republic.  Labor is more inclined to support these issues than the Coalition, and many in the Coalition ranks can’t abide Turnbull because of his positions on them.

But polls have consistently shown voters rating Turnbull more highly than Abbott as a leader.  Turnbull has firm convictions, and he is articulate and able to sell messages well as a communicator.  Some people argue that Turnbull could lure many voters away from Labor, particularly those who voted against the Liberals more because of disliking Abbott than actually preferring Labor.  It may take several opinion polls over the coming months to show what effect Turnbull’s rise has on the Coalition’s vote.  In a sense, we’ll soon see whether or not his rise to the Liberal leadership triggers climate change, albeit of a political kind rather than an environmental kind.

Now the challenge facing Turnbull as Prime Minister relates to the Coalition’s policies and its ability to sell them to the public.  The Coalition has been burnt in the polls because of unpopular policies in relation to cuts in public spending and possible changes to employment laws.  Although voters seem to accept that there’s a major budget deficit, they’re scared that potential spending cuts will hurt them personally.  They’re not convinced that the Coalition wants to tackle tax avoidance by major companies, and they’re scared that the Coalition might try to deregulate the employment market, removing things like penalty rates for shift-based jobs, as happened when the Coalition was last in office.  Can Turnbull convince voters to accept its policy agenda, or make any cuts seem less painful?

More importantly, can Turnbull convince the crossbenchers in the Senate, whose support he needs to pass laws?  He needs six extra Senate votes to pass any laws, and he needs to engage with those Senators and persuade them as well as the public.  I suspect that he’d do a better job of persuading and negotiating than Abbott did, but it’s not going to be easy.

Turnbull might just bring the Coalition’s vote up in the opinion polls.  But he needs to win over the cynics in his own ranks, as well as the public and the crossbench Senators who could make or break his policy agenda.  Very interesting times lie ahead as Turnbull confronts challenges from different directions.