THE new federal Senate’s composition will be an improvement on the previous one, leaning more towards conservative outcomes for rural Australia and farmers and away from the extreme left, says NSW Nationals Senator John Williams.
With three Senators from Tasmania, WA and Queensland and support from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, the Palmer United Party (PUP) will hold critical influence over legislative outcomes when the new Senate officially launches today, July 1.
Independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon, Victorian Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan, SA Family First Senator-elect Bob Day and NSW Liberal Democratic Party Senator-elect David Leyonhjelm represent the other half of a colourful crossbench comprising eight minor party Senators, elected at last year’s federal poll.
The crossbench influence can still be nullified if the 33 Coalition Senators vote together with Labor’s 25 or the Greens' 10 Senators.
But the Greens and Labor voting together alone won’t be enough to pass or vote down legislation in the new 76 seat Senate.
The Coalition will need six additional votes to have their way but given the convergence of diverse and largely untested political forces, unpredictability may well be the only real certainty in Canberra from tomorrow.
Senator Williams said the make-up of the previous Senate was “hopeless” because the Greens and the ALP “had the numbers and virtually always voted together”.
But he said the new Senate would be better than the previous one, despite the Coalition, which holds a clear majority in the House of Representatives, needing the six crossbench votes to pass or block legislation.
“I think most of them will lean our way,” Senator Williams said of the eight crossbenchers.
“They may not lean as far towards us (the Coalition) as we’d like them to but the new Senate will be far more workable than the old one.”
But Senator Williams said the Coalition won’t be taking any conservative votes for granted and in the new regime it will be a case of working closely with the crossbench.
“We have to put our arguments up in the Senate chamber when debating issues and Ministers will also have discussions with the Senate crossbenchers, over different bits of legislation,” he said.
The carbon tax repeal legislation was introduced into parliament last week and will be the new Senate’s first big test.
Last week, Clive Palmer also announced he’d vote to repeal the carbon tax but set the cat amongst the pigeons by supporting other measures like voting against the Coalition’s direct action plan, saying it was “a waste of money” when other tight budget measures are impacting families.
Standing alongside former US Vice President and global climate action advocate
Al Gore in Canberra last week, Mr Palmer said his Senators would vote against abolition of the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and would not support any change to the Renewable Energy Target (RET) before 2016 – after the next election.
He said the PUP would also move an amendment to establish an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which would only become effective once Australia’s main trading partners also take action to establish such a scheme.
Senator Williams said Mr Palmer had been a conservative and a “huge supporter” of the conservative side of politics for many years and expected him to retain those values in votes like the carbon tax.
“I have no doubt those who voted for Clive’s party would be conservative as well, so if he’s going to move a long way to the left and support the ALP and Greens I would see that as betraying the people who voted for him,” he said.
“In other words he’s been a conservative and he should support conservative outcomes.”
He said Senator-elect David Leyonhjelm and Senator-elect Day “certainly talk conservative” and Senator-elect Muir “will no doubt need some guidance” and in his personal view, more experienced Senators, Xenophon and Madigan, would also help to repeal the carbon tax.
For rural and agricultural specific issues like building dams and other regional infrastructure, and promoting exports of farm commodities like live animals, Senator Williams believes the new Senate will “work a lot better than we think”.
“Always remember 80 per cent of legislation that comes into the Senate is non-controversial and goes through unopposed,” he said.
Rural matters ‘home territory’: Leyonhjelm
SENATOR-ELECT David Leyonhjelm will apply his sharp understanding of rural and agricultural to his basic libertarian political mantra of small government, less taxation and regulation and allowing market forces and competition to resolve most issues.
He plans to seek membership of the Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee which has current inquiries into issues like grain handling logistics, the beef cattle levy and chemical use in horticulture.
“That’s home territory for me really,” he said of the Committee’s agenda.
“I’ll have an interest in rural matters but of course I’ll be very different from the Nationals because I’m not an agrarian socialist.
“I think Australian agriculture is world competitive and the best thing the government can do is get out of the way.”
He said he didn’t expect any other crossbench minor-party Senators to have the same level of specific interest in rural issues that he does.
“I’m not the first minor party Senator to have an interest in rural affairs,” he said.
“But I understand the rural sector better than most people so therefore when rural matters come up there will be an inclination to listen to me.”
New Senate 'unpredictable': Greens
AUSTRALIAN Greens leader and Tasmanian Senator Christine Milne says the new Senate will be “extremely unpredictable, which means less certainty for rural and regional Australia”.
Senator Milne said with the balance of power split in so many directions, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will need to negotiate on almost all of his government’s legislation.
But she said Mr Abbott doesn’t have the skills to negotiate and “only knows how to crash or crash through”.
She said Clive Palmer “says one thing one day and does another the next” and was leading a group of very inexperienced parliamentarians who have no background in advocacy for rural Australia.
“With a Nationals Agriculture Minister captured by the Liberal Party, rural Australia is set to face free trade deals that will not benefit them and an ongoing preference for the coal and gas companies at the expense of farmers,” she said.
“We already have an Emissions Trading Scheme so it makes no sense to ditch the existing carbon price for some imaginary scheme that’s off in the never-never.
“The price on pollution that is already legislated is working and already linked to the European Union.
“It is the cheapest and most effective global warming policy we could have, and we should keep it.”
Golden opportunity for the bush: Xenophon
INDEPENDENT South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon said the record number of crossbench Senators presented a golden opportunity to “do something good for the bush”.
But the new Senate will create some unlikely voting alliances, as the crossbenchers chose different sides to stand on various votes, including with the Coalition, ALP or Greens.
“It’ll make Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, or the Odd Couple, look like the new normal,” he said.
Senator Xenophon said he had high hopes the new Senate will generate better legislative outcomes for food labelling, rural debt financing, cutting red tape to grow exports, improving retain supply chain competition or “taking on the duopoly, to name just a few”.
“The government’s headache is the bush’s opportunity,” he said.
Senator Xenophon said he was encouraged by his early discussions with Tasmanian PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie believing she will be “a great advocate for rural issues”.
He said Senator Madigan had already shown great leadership on farming, manufacturing and rural issues and would play “a significant role” in the new Senate.
And Senator Leyonhjelm will be “unambiguously good for the bush” given his background in agribusiness, he said.
“And as for Ricky Muir, people shouldn’t underestimate his ability to deliver good outcomes for the bush and the regions,” he said.
A return to ‘common sense’
Queensland LNP Senator-elect Matthew Canavan said the new Senate would have a “big hole to fill” on rural and agricultural issues with Ron Boswell retiring after 31 years.
But he said three Queensland LNP Senators, including himself, would be based outside of Brisbane and focused on rural/agricultural issues.
“July 1 will also see an end to the Green-Labor alliance in the Senate which has been anti-farmer and anti-rural interests for three years,” he said.
He said the Senate has been held by the extreme left of Australian politics for the past three years and the new crossbench was somewhere between the centre left and centre right.
“The past three years the Greens and ALP have led us down the garden path, but we’ve had our Age of Aquarius and now it’s time for us all to return to the age of reason and common sense,” he said.
“During those three years the Senate passed the Carbon Tax, the Mining Tax and imposed more and more red and green tape.
“The first vote of the new Senate will be to start getting rid of that legislation, starting with the carbon tax.”