Hung Senate might be a blessing for Malcolm Turnbull
While governing with a minority in the Senate would usually be seen as a negative for prime ministers, it might prove to be a strategic blessing for Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull faces ongoing resistance to many of his policies that he took to the election from recalcitrant backbenchers in the Liberal party room and paradoxically he is more likely to win backing from crossbench senators for parts of his legislative program.
In other words, the next Senate is likely to strengthen Mr Turnbull’s bargaining position in his divided party room because the crossbenchers are less likely to support neo-conservative positions in key policy areas such as superannuation, raising the retirement age and marriage equality.
The new Senate is likely to exhibit a left-of-centre bias in many policy areas that should render unworkable the positions advanced by right wing government backbenchers such as Eric Abetz, George Christensen, Kevin Andrews and Corey Bernardi.
After the Australian Electoral Commission declared the Senate results for all states on Thursday, the Coalition will occupy only 30 of the 76 seats in the next upper house.
Labor will have 26 senators, but the balance of power will rest with 20 senators not aligned to the major parties (see the graphic below for the final results).
For the government to pass legislation it will need to get support from at least nine of the crossbench members.
Joint sitting of parliament looms
Mr Turnbull has signalled that he may call a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives to resolve the deadlock over the government’s controversial bills to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
It is still not clear whether these bills would be carried by a joint sitting, but the government would probably stand a strong chance if One Nation and the Xenophon members decided to back the proposal.
Superannuation tax breaks
The composition of the new Senate virtually kills off the prospects for conservative government backbenchers sabotaging Mr Turnbull’s move to abolish the lucrative superannuation tax breaks of high-income earners.
Given the policies they put to voters at the election, the Greens, Xenophon senators and Jacqui Lambie are almost certain to support the PM’s super changes that were not enacted before the last parliament was dissolved.
Despite a warning from Queensland National MP George Christensen that he would vote against the government on the super changes in the lower house, Mr Turnbull recently confirmed he planned to press ahead with the reforms.
If the push to legalise gay marriage was put to a vote of the new parliament both houses would most likely carry it.
However, that probably won’t happen because the government is committed to holding a plebiscite on the issue.
If Australians reject marriage equality at the plebiscite slated for next year, a string of crossbench senators have indicated they would support reforms to provide gay couples with legal rights to ensure equal property rights and access to government services.
Even the One Nation senators are committed to this principle.
“We also acknowledge that same sex couples living in defacto relationships should be afforded the same property rights as heterosexual couples,” the One Nation party states in its platform.
Raising the retirement age
Conservative government backbenchers are committed to the former Abbott government’s push to raise eligibility for the age pension to 70 for people born after 1965.
The overwhelming majority of crossbench senators are staunchly opposed to this proposal, arguing that it is particularly unfair on manual workers who are more prone to work injuries in their 60s.
The Turnbull government might be forced to review this policy when it begins horse-trading with the Greens, One Nation and the Xenophon senators, who are all opposed to raising the retirement age.
Restoration of foreign aid
The Greens and Xenophon senators are pushing for the Turnbull government to restore Australia’s foreign aid spending in the next budget.
The Abbott government ripped more than $7 billion from foreign aid – a decision for which Australia has been roundly criticised in international forums.
Expect a theatrical response from government backbenchers if Mr Turnbull gives ground on this.
Made in Australia
All of the minor parties in the senate, apart from the Liberal Democrats, want the government to introduce a meaningful product labelling regime that will inform Australian consumers where products on retail shelves were made.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce might be open to fresh ideas after overseeing the development of a similar disclosure regime last year.