Whilst the outcome on Election Night was clear – a decisive victory for Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition – the likely outcome in the Senate where various minor and micro-parties with specific agenda have won seats, has raised myriad questions about the fate of the incoming government’s policy programme.
With the likes of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party in Victoria, the Australian Sports Party in Western Australia, Family First in South Australia and potentially two Senators from the Palmer United Party currently projected to claim seats, it’s clear that from July 2014 (when the new Senate sits), Tony Abbott won’t have it all his own way. The unwieldy Senate will cause further problems as the Prime Minister-elect has made it clear that he would pursue “all constitutional means” to implement agenda; at the top of the list are his pledges to repeal the carbon and mining taxes and deliver on his policy of a more generous paid parental leave scheme.
When we evaluate the policy programmes (or lack thereof) of each of these micro-party candidates, there are distinct opportunities and threats for Abbott and his agenda, some that may be appealing to his political advisors and also to those in the policy wonk world clamouring for more rational policymaking than is currently proposed in the Coalition’s oft-mocked Real Solutions booklet.
The main source of derision from all sides of the debate is Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, that is costed at $5.5 billion per annum. Whilst Abbott should be able to count on the legislative support of incoming-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Senator, David Leyonhjelm, on most bills (as the LDP consider themselves libertarians opposed to government intervention), the New South Wales former veterinarian is opposed to Abbott’s generous welfare scheme stating, “why should people without children’s taxes be used to pay people with children?” Similar sentiments have been echoed by the re-elected Independent Senator from South Australia, Nick Xenophon, who whilst receptive to scrapping the mining tax (terming it a “dud”) he said in “good conscience” he could not support Mr Abbott’s expensive paid parental leave scheme. Similar sentiments around the scheme being inequitable and unaffordable have been echoed by potential Family First Senator Bob Day from South Australia and the two likely Senators to represent the Palmer United Party.
Thus the emerging hope for those who consider the policy to be far too generous at a time of continued and pervasive structural budget deficits (including some parliamentary members of the Coalition), is that Abbott ameliorates the scheme to be more in line with the outgoing government’s current scheme, using the cover of having to deal with the Senate as the explanation for having to amend a policy he has been wedded to for some years now. However, should Abbott proceed and seek legislative passage of his signature domestic policy, support may come from the most unlikely place, the Greens. With a similar policy to the incoming-government, the Greens may ironically be the only path to success for Abbott but as a Liberal source suggested to Fairfax this week, “Abbott will not want to be seen to be doing deals with the Greens but they are the only ones at all supportive of paid parental leave.” All told, if Abbott plays his cards right he may still be able to claim legislative victory on the scheme either before or after the new Senate sits in July 2014 but one has to expect a torturous negotiating period with whoever the new government sits down with.
Despite the reservations from the incoming cross-benchers around Abbott’s scheme, there is more unanimity amongst these soon-to-be Senators around repeals of the carbon and mining taxes. However, there is significant consternation about the proposed replacement, being Abbott’s policy of Direct Action. For one, whilst the Leyonhjelm supports repealing both taxes, he wouldn’t support Direct Action, repeating his party’s belief in less government intervention. Likewise Senator Xenophon, who had previously worked with then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull on a compromise proposal to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, told the Guardian Australia that he would not vote for the abolition of the carbon tax until the Coalition’s alternative Direct Action plan had been changed to ensure it could meet Australia’s emission reduction targets. In further conversations with Fairfax he described the Coalition’s policy as “clunky and inefficient.”
However, Abbott is likely to find support from the likes of Day and the Democratic Labor Party’s Senator from Victoria, John Madigan, who don’t consider climate change to be real in the first place. Again for Abbott, delivering on his promise of a repeal will not be easy, especially if he fails to convince Labor and the Greens to let repeal of the carbon tax occur before the changeover in the Senate next July, and not elect to go to a double dissolution election.
Whilst it’s clear that Abbott’s agenda will be up for amendment no matter the exact final makeup of the Upper House, what policies will these incoming Senators demand to be implemented in exchange for their votes? We’ve got potential Senators who represent the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (Ricky Muir, Victoria) and the Australian Sports Party (Wayne Dropulich, Western Australia) who’ve got very narrow policy agendas not extending far beyond more cars and more sport. Arguably though the most aggressive in their approach will be those representing the Palmer United Party (PUP). With party leader Clive Palmer likely elected to the House and Glenn Lazarus of Queensland and Jacqui Lambie of Tasmania likely to become Senators, they will exert much influence both in Parliament and on the airwaves. Declaring that his eponymous party won’t make any “blanket deals” with the new government, the PUP shape as one of Abbott’s biggest challenges in government, as they campaign for their conservative populist agenda that some academics, such as Ron Levy of Griffith University, have likened to Australia’s Tea Party.
For Abbott the perils of Senate negotiations come at a time when voters are expecting stability as a counterpoint to the hung parliament of the last three years and the unceasing leadership crises within the Labor government. Further, there are calls from many advocacy groups, primarily from the business community to drastically review the budget to amend the structural imbalances whilst also engaging in forward-thinking public policy around broadband and climate change to address the lingering productivity slowdown.
This will make for a fascinating time in Australian politics and policymaking. One hopes that despite our system proffering up a veritable ‘barnyard’ of political decision-makers, their presence ameliorates the less economically-sound elements of Tony Abbott’s agenda without forgoing the national interest in favour of their narrow agendas. Because if there is one thing that all politicians agree on; there is much to do to secure Australia’s continued prosperity.
What do you think? Will the new Senate help or hinder the implementation of Abbott’s agenda and could it bring about more reasonable policymaking from the incoming government? Let us know in the comments selection below.