Ready, aim, fire! Australia’s new parliament begins

Tony Abbott was a formidable opposition leader but how effective will the Abbott-led Coalition be in government? AAP Image/Joe Castro

Just over two months ago Tony Abbott led the Coalition to victory and became Australia’s 28th prime minister. When the new parliament begins today, his side will sit on the government benches for the first time since 2007. But how will the 44th parliament be different to its predecessor?

In the House of Representatives

For starters, there won’t be a minority government. In the lower house, the Coalition will enjoy a comfortable majority, holding 90 seats to Labor’s 55, even though the two-party preferred vote on September 7 was 53.45% to 46.55%. Indeed, the Australian electoral system is designed to amplify the result in order to construct comfortable majorities in the House of Representatives.

The Coalition’s majority will have implications for the political debate. First, there won’t be an impending sense that the government could fall at any moment, as was the case in the last parliament. Second, the crossbenchers will not be as influential as they were when Labor needed their support to hold a majority.

The agenda of the 44th parliament will be dominated by the Coalition and it will ultimately be responsible for the successes or failures. Unlike the last government, the new one can’t blame the crossbenchers for controversial policies.

Bronwyn Bishop is the Coaliton’s first female Speaker. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Despite the marginal role, the Greens’ Adam Bandt will be joined by two independents. Andrew Wilkie returns and Cathy McGowan, who defeated Sophie Mirabella in the rural Victorian seat of Indi, enters parliament for the first time. McGowan, in particular, will be under pressure to achieve the policy outcomes she advocated during the campaign.

Businessman Clive Palmer will also begin his parliamentary career, possibly as a fly-in fly-out politician. His influence, however, will also extend into the Senate, where his party will hold two seats from July (possibly more, depending on the situation in the Western Australian Senate recount).

Aside from changes to the composition of parliament, it will also have a new Speaker. Bronwyn Bishop, who was a minister in the Howard government, was given the role in lieu of a ministerial position. Observers of parliament in the past would be aware Bishop has a sound understanding of parliament’s Standing Orders. Bishop will have the task of maintaining order as the Coaliton’s first female Speaker.

In the Senate

The composition of the Senate will not change until July next year. Until then, the Coalition needs the support of the Greens to pass legislation. This has the potential to be a very challenging and frustrating period for the new government, especially as it seeks to dismantle the so-called carbon tax.

Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party will hold two Senate seats from July. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

The government will argue that it won a mandate to scrap the tax, but the Greens have the prerogative of ignoring such claims as they advance their own policy agenda.

An even greater challenge for the government will become apparent when the new Senate begins. To pass legislation it will need to negotiate with a wide range of right-of-centre parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party and Family First, as well as the Palmer United Party which has enhanced its influence by incorporating the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s senator Ricky Muir into its voting bloc.

Abbott will have to balance acquiescing to these parties’ demands to get his government’s legislation through while not appearing to be at their mercy. The number of new minor parties - and their differing policy agendas - has the potential to be a major problem for the government from July 2014.

The policy debate

The Coalition government will focus on the traditional issues it has campaigned on. At the forefront will be economic policy. Already, the Coalition has moved to scrap some tax measures and has focused on leading a government that “lives within its means”.

The Coalition won’t be as eager as the last government to advance socially progressive policies such as same-sex marriage and will avoid being distracted by debates about gender roles as it believes such things derailed the previous government.

As a student of John Howard, Abbott will seek to ensure Australians feel “comfortable and relaxed” about the state of the nation while focusing on addressing “mainstream” issues.

In the immediate term, the government has a number of spotfires it needs to extinguish. It must address the spying allegations by Indonesia as well as be seen to move on MPs’ dodgy expense claims.

After having seen Abbott as a formidable opposition leader, Australians will today begin the journey of seeing how effective the Abbott-led Coalition is in government.