In the years to come we’re going to have plenty of motley parliaments, with fewer major party parliamentarians and larger crossbenches of independents and minor parties holding the balance of power. We better get used to it.
At the Commonwealth level, the minority Coalition Government is dealing with eight crossbenchers in the House of Representatives and 19 in the Senate, each holding the balance of power.
The number of crossbenchers in the House will probably be unchanged after the federal election, so while most observers expect the federal election to deliver a Shorten Government, a poor result for Labor might mean it only wins minority government and still requires the votes of crossbenchers in the House.
In the Senate, Labor is expected to pick up seats at the expense of the crossbench thanks to the 2016 deal between the Coalition and Greens to change Senate voting rules, but it will still fall well short of a majority. And the crossbench will still have a significant green-tinge despite the plunge in voter support for the Greens party.
Minor party voters who oppose the Greens will go for one of the Liberal Democrats, One Nation, the Christians, Conservatives or Katter’s party. Regrettably, most of these voters will fail to preference all the anti-Green parties with the result that, under the new Senate voting rules, it’s more likely none of these parties will gather enough votes to beat the Greens for the last Senate seat, at least in some states.
It’s clear why the Greens wanted these new Senate voting rules, but why the Coalition wanted them is anyone’s guess. (Note to voters: if you don’t like the Greens, fill in a lot of preferences for non Green parties!)
At the state level, motley parliaments are the new norm. One in seven state parliamentarians is a crossbencher, and these crossbenchers hold the balance of power in each of the state upper houses. At the upcoming NSW state election the size of the crossbench is set to swell with minor party candidates like Mark Latham and me looking to join the ranks.
The cause of this swelling of the crossbench is clear; voters are turning off the major parties.
For more than three decades the internet has allowed far-flung people to form new connections. Increasingly, people identify with niche groups rather than a mass movement, and also support niche parties. This includes single issue parties like those focussed on science, the arts, seniors, anti vaxxers, animals, marijuana and assisted suicide.
The formula of the major parties — of attempting to appeal to everyone and offend no-one by being heavy on platitudes and light on principle — doesn’t cut it anymore.
Whether the overall influence of crossbenchers is positive or negative depends on the quality of the crossbenchers.
Crossbenchers can stop governments doing bad things, such as when crossbenchers in the Senate (me included) stopped the Coalition Government from increasing the use of mandatory sentencing.
But crossbenchers can also stop governments doing good things, such as when crossbenchers in the Senate (not including me) blocked cuts to university and welfare spending.
Good crossbenchers take into account how individual decisions add up. Do they support spending cuts to balance their desires for increased spending in their pet areas? Do they have a view on the overall size of government, the tax burden and government debt? If they achieved all their sought after protections of society and the environment, what would be the overall impact on jobs and prosperity?
Above all, the quality of crossbenchers depends on their willingness to compromise and accept that they won’t achieve everything they want. Nick Xenophon cut deals, Jacqui Lambie did not. Nick Xenophon sometimes voted for the government’s agenda while racking up personal achievements. Jacqui didn’t.
We’ll also get better government if both major parties are willing to compromise to get things done. The born-to-rule attitude of the Liberals under Tony Abbott hurt them in the Senate. In contrast, Scott Morrison’s deal-making as a minister augurs well for his time as Prime Minister. On the other side, Labor are consummate deal makers and can be expected to do whatever it takes to navigate the motley parliaments of the future.
Our future governments and parliaments might not be a disaster, but only if we elect parliamentarians, from both minor and major parties, who are willing to cut a deal.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats