The Senate results are finally in, and one thing’s abundantly clear – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to take Australia to a double dissolution election instead of just calling a standard election has backfired big time.
Roll back the clocks to March this year, and unable to convince the Senate that they should pass his ABCC legislation, Turnbull threatened Senators with a double dissolution of parliament, saying:
“The time for playing games is over.” (21 March 2016)
Turnbull’s goal? Clearly he believed the outcome of a double dissolution election – where all seats in the Senate are up for re-election instead of just under half – would give him a Senate more inclined to deliver on the LNP’s agenda. He could have just called a standard election – but he didn’t. Perhaps he thought the threat of a double dissolution would get some Senators at risk of losing their seats to toe what he perceived to be ‘the line’. But they didn’t – and so Turnbull threw caution to the wind and tossed the Senate dice in the air – believing this would enable him to better negotiate his way through parliament. It turns out – not so much.
A quick reminder of the pre-2016 Federal Election Senate
In brief there are 76 seats in the Senate – 12 Senators from each State and 2 from each Territory. Here’s what the Senate looked like prior to the Federal Election:
In numerical terms – there were:
- 33 LNP Senators
- 25 Labor Senators
- 10 Green Senators, and
- 8 Cross-Benchers – Jacqui Lambie (JLN), Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang (PUP), Nick Xenophon (XEN), Ricky Muir (AMEP), David Lleyonhelm (LDP), Bob Day (FFP) and John Madigan (DLP).
This mix of Senators meant that in order for the LNP to pass any of its legislation through the Senate prior to the 2016 Federal Election, they needed the votes of 39 Senators. With only 33 of their own Senators, they still needed the support of either the ALP or the Greens to pass legislation – and failing that, six of the Cross-Benchers. None of these groups were inclined to support some of the LNP’s key legislation, which brings us to…
The 2016 Double Dissolution Senate
Following Turnbull’s throw of the double dissolution dice, an election was held in early July. Counting for the outcome of Senate seats was finally completed yesterday, and the Senate now looks like this:
When compared to the 2013 Senate there are:
- 3 less LNP Senators
- 1 more Labor Senator
- 1 less Green Senator
- 2 more Xenophon Senators (in addition to Nick Xenophon)
- 4 One Nation Senators (Pauline Hanson plus three others)
- Of the remaining four independent senators – only Jacqui Lambie, Bob Day and David Lleyonhelm remain (from the previous Senate), and are joined by Derryn Hinch.
Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon now hold the balance of power
As a result of the 2016 election, the LNP now has to get nine additional Senators (instead of six) to support any legislation they want to put through parliament. This will be impossible without the support of either the ALP, the Greens or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party plus Nick Xenophon’s team (and two other Senators). This effectively gives Hanson and Xenophon the balance of power in the Senate.
What if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a Double Dissolution?
A number of commentators are blaming the influx of independent Senators and the poor outcome for the LNP in the Senate on changes to the way Senate preferences were allocated this election. However in reality, the challenging outcome is more likely to be due to the fact that a double dissolution election was called instead of a standard one. This had the effect of increasing the number of positions that needed to be filled in the Senate and correspondingly lowering the barrier to entry.
I did some quick calculations on the back of an envelope today by looking at preference flows for each of the counts in each State to see what the Senate might have looked like if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution – and there is a material difference:
No single group would hold the balance of power
Here’s a summary of the key differences in outcome if Turnbull had decided to call a standard election instead of a double dissolution:
- The LNP would have one more seat (31 instead of 30);
- The ALP would have two fewer seats (24 instead of 26);
- There would be no change for the Greens or Nick Xenophon’s team;
- Pauline Hanson would have three less seats (one seat instead of four);
- Jacqui Lambie would have one more seat (two seats instead of one); and
- The remaining three cross-benchers (David Lleyonhelm, Bob Day and Derryn Hinch) would be joined by Glenn Lazarus, Ricky Muir and Dio Wang (PUP).
The outcome if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution would have been that the LNP would only need eight (instead of nine) additional votes to get legislation through the Senate. More importantly, the LNP would have more options in terms of negotiating legislation through the Senate as they would not be limited to having to seek the approval of Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon when they were unable to negotiate with the ALP or the Greens (which is most of the time).
In a world where Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution, no minor party or Independent would hold the balance of power in the Senate. And while Pauline Hanson would still be there, she would be there on her own and her voice would just be one of many cross-benchers – instead of her being hailed as the ‘queen of the Senate‘. Turnbull’s double dissolution folly has unwittingly – but not unforseeably – handed Hanson the keys to the Senate Kingdom, thereby giving her a major influence over all of our futures for the next three years.
Which brings us to…
The real Losers from Turnbull’s Double Dissolution Disaster? The Australian people.
As usual, the real losers when our pollies make poor decisions are the Australian people. Governing a democracy is no easy task – it requires an ability to negotiate and compromise to get things done – particularly in a diverse parliament. This is not typically a bad thing – as if politicians from different parties can reach a compromise, this can end up with a far better outcome for the population as a whole than when one political party dominates. Unfortunately Turnbull’s response to the ABCC legislation earlier this year implied that he is either unwilling or unable to negotiate.
However the stark reality for Turnbull and the LNP moving forward is that to get any legislation passed, they will need to pick one of the following to negotiate with in the Senate:
- The ALP;
- The Greens; or
- Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon (plus two other cross-benchers).
Our only hope now is that Nick Xenophon stays centered
Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution gamble has meant that he’s now going to have to pick between negotiations with the left or Hanson’s far-right version of politics. In the best case scenario, Turnbull would negotiate legislative outcomes with the ALP and/or the Greens since they represent the largest groups of Australians.
However, given the agitation within Turnbull’s own party to lean further to the right, it’s hard to see that happening. This means that instead of the majority ruling – as democracy intended – Australia’s future could very well end up in the tiny hands of Pauline Hanson. That said, Hanson can’t deliver the Senate vote to Turnbull on her own – he needs Nick Xenophon as well (plus two additional Senators). The two additional Senators shouldn’t be difficult for Turnbull – as Bob Day and David Lleyonhelm have regularly sided with the LNP.
This leaves Nick Xenophon to be the buffer between Australia and the far-right of politics. Let’s hope Nick Xenophon can stand firm. He may be all that stands between the sane people of Australia and a Royal Commission into climate change followed by a descent into Trump-like lunacy.
I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Turnbull has a mammoth task ahead of him – one that requires enormous strength of character and an ability to skilfully negotiate with both the left and right sides of politics. If he can’t manage to find the stones and the skill to do this – and he has so far shown himself capable of neither – we are looking at a parliament either incapable of functioning or one dominated by the far-right.
This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.