Election 2013 media panel

Those ‘accidental’ senators

Australia elected a truly ‘mixed bag’ of new senators on Saturday. How will the media respond? AAP/Lukas Coch

Now that all Senate seats are looking settled, we are left to ponder what the addition of the five new “accidental” senators means for our parliamentary system. We now have senators representing an odd assortment of microparties, which collectively will move the Senate to the right of centre from July 1 next year.

The five - David Leyonhjelm (Liberal-Democratic Party), Glenn Lazarus (Palmer United Party), Ricky Muir (Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party), Wayne Dropulich (Australian Sports Party) and Bob Day (Family First) - have each expressed the surprise or fortune of their election, while exposing personal belief systems that your typical party-line politician would not.

Unlike the big party politicians who are skilled at cautiously answering journalists’ questions (if at all), these senators have already shown they might actually say what they think, which is mightily appealing to some voters but frightening to others.

But when you are a party of one, personal beliefs are likely to swamp the articulation of policy. Already the press have begun to troll through the archives of the online world, beginning with Facebook and Youtube, highlighting past mistakes that a career politician would never make.

In terms of politics itself, there may be an upside to the election of these senators. Failing the eventuality that a decisive number of them can simply be corralled into supporting the LNP’s reforms, they may make the legislative process more accountable by holding up the passage of legislation to additional and perhaps unusual scrutiny. But the more likely scenario is that they will quickly learn to do deals with the LNP, exchanging their support for incoming legislation with concessions to extremely narrow interests.

The biggest downside to the election of such inexperienced senators who do not have an extensive party machine to guide them will be their significance for the reporting of politics. These accidental senators may be a disaster for political communication in Australia.

Even on the ABC, the reporting of their success has been turned into something of a freak show. The ABC in Victoria led Monday night’s television news bulletin with a tabloid-style spectacle of Ricky Muir and his camping frolics, followed up with a more investigative segment on 7:30 a few days later.

We can expect to see continued focus on their inexperience and political naiveté once they have to head to Canberra. Such coverage, which is more likely to make for better stories than a major party politician could ever offer, will take attention off policy implementation and the passing of legislation. The senators will not fit the stereotypes of the disciplined politician and will not be reined in by party machines.

For some news audiences, these new senators are to federal politics what reality television is to scripted programming. Many of us are as intolerant of politicians as we are of scripted programing, and this intolerance is heightened when we are presented with an alternative: in this case, a politician who is not only “new” but we really don’t know what they are likely to say next.

Ostensibly, this will add much colour to the reporting of federal politics as these senators break up the media monotony of the major parties. But when the machinery of the Coalition government is up to speed, an independent senator sideshow that plays to the tabloids may result in a policy communication vacuum that we could well do without.