An important element in the success of Malcolm Turnbull’s government will be how effectively it handles the Senate.
Some crossbench senators have greeted the arrival of Turnbull enthusiastically, contrasting his seeking them out after his victory with the more cold-shoulder approach of his predecessor.
Poor handling of the Senate, especially in the early days, was one reason for Tony Abbott’s legislative problems. It was not the only or even main reason – a prime difficulty was that various measures from the 2014 budget in particular were shockers.
Sunday’s reshuffle plays into the dynamics of government-crossbench relations. Eric Abetz was dumped from the cabinet and thus as government Senate leader. Attorney-General George Brandis, the previous deputy, has been elevated to the position, which is a captain’s pick rather than elected. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann becomes deputy.
Also significant is that while under Abbott there were only four Senate ministers in the cabinet – Abetz, Brandis, Cormann and the Nationals Senate leader Nigel Scullion – now they are eight. Apart from Brandis, Cormann and Scullion, the others are Michaelia Cash, Arthur Sinodinos, Mitch Fifield, Marise Payne and Simon Birmingham.
Senate ministers are prone to complain that their lower house colleagues often don’t adequately understand the upper house, which has not just a non-government majority but a distinctive culture. With several more Senate ministers in cabinet discussions, there should be more feedback and greater appreciation of how to maximise the chances of successful negotiation on legislation.
When the Greens vote with Labor against legislation the government has to get the support of six of the eight non-Green crossbenchers.
Some crossbenchers anticipated that Abetz was likely to lose his position in the reshuffle and Brandis would become Senate leader. At a meeting about legislation last week several of them canvassed the situation among themselves.
“The crossbench had a chat about George and the conclusion was that he was not the best person to liaise with us,” Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm told The Conversation. “We would prefer Mitch” to be the go-to person – they find him a “genial guy” to deal with. Fifield was, and continues to be, the manager of government business in the Senate.
Leyonhjelm said one person in the Turnbull camp had suggested it might be useful for Turnbull to have regular meetings with the crossbenchers, although this has not yet turned into a firm proposal.
Leyonhjelm believes the change to Turnbull provides a positive opportunity to revisit some legislation that has hit a brick wall, including bills imposing tougher provisions on registered organisations and the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Independent Nick Xenophon says he could not fault Abetz’s dealings with him; he has always worked constructively with Brandis and looks forward to doing so in the future. He’d also been able to see Abbott on the two or three occasions when he sought to do so.
The government’s problems in getting legislation through had to do with its policy, Xenophon said, and it would find the Senate easier if there was a change in policy direction under the new leader. “Malcolm Turnbull has indicated a willingness to have his door open to speak with the crossbench.”
Family First’s Bob Day believes that if Cash rather than Brandis had been appointed leader she would have given Senate opposition leader Penny Wong “more of a run for her money”. “Mathias Cormann and Michaelia Cash are the stand-out performers in the Senate.” He describes them as “the 20/20 cricketers of the Senate”, compared with their colleagues who are “the five-day Test match” players.
Day argues that Turnbull himself “needs to be the defacto leader in the Senate – Mitch can be his proxy. The Prime Minister needs to be seen to be walking the red carpet a bit – at least for the remainder of this term.”
Prime ministers are hardly seen in the vicinity of the Senate, he says. “If the Prime Minister really wants to do things differently, spend a bit more time over at the Senate. It could work well for him.”
Whether they see Turnbull “walking the red carpet” or not, crossbench senators will be intensely focused on his government’s ideas on Senate electoral reform.
New Special Minister of State Mal Brough is already on that case. Brough told AAP immediately after being sworn in on Monday: “it’s in the nation’s interest to have a change to the voting system that is more transparent – people do not like the fact that they are not choosing their own preference flow. We need to have a good look at it urgently.”
Some of the crossbenchers are unlikely to be comforted by Brough’s reassurance that “if they’ve done a good job they’ve had six years to entrench themselves in their state and a change to the system could be to their advantage.”