Politics Opinion

Independents spit the dummy over Albanese's staff cuts proposal

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Some Independents have expressed public outrage at the proposed staff cuts by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

ONLY WEEKS into the tenure of the new Federal Labor Government, some Independents have in the last 24 hours threatened to block legislation if their parliamentary staff numbers are reduced, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has proposed, from four to one.

Their quota of electoral office staff will stay at four.

On Friday, Mr Albanese wrote to the Independents advising them of his intention to cut their parliamentary staff allocation, prompting a furious response from many.

In his explanation for the cuts, the Prime Minister made the point that while the numbers of public servants, including many employed by Centrelink, were significantly reduced by the previous Morrison Government, the only place there was an increase was in crossbench staff.

Unfortunately, the disgruntled parliamentarians chose to deal with the issue over the weekend publicly, through the media, apparently before considering the option of entering into negotiations with the Government. Claims that reducing staffers will destroy democracy, accusations of being “nobbled” by the PM, of their ability to work independently being “attacked” as well as the staffing cuts being an attack on the people of Australia have featured on social and mainstream media.

As reported in The Guardian:

‘The entire Senate crossbench – Lambie, Tyrrell, David Pocock, Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts – issued a joint statement calling the decision “a direct attack on democracy” that “will serve to only decrease scrutiny on legislation”.’

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher on Monday explained that it is not unusual for electoral staff to be brought to Canberra by MPs and Senators for parliamentary work, expressing her intention to continue negotiations with the Independents.

It’s not for me to argue about how many staffers crossbenchers should have in Canberra, in addition to the four they employ in their electoral offices. It’s beyond my field of expertise. However, I do take issue with the manner in which some of them have reacted to Albanese’s proposal.

The new Parliament has not yet met and already we are being confronted with the possibility that some Independents will sabotage its ability to pass legislation. There are undoubtedly circumstances in which it is appropriate to block legislation, however, one would hope this is a last resort strategy and not employed as a threat over staffing issues.

“We will block legislation you were elected to pass unless you give us the staff we want” is, apart from being entirely unethical, using a sledgehammer to crack an egg and reflects very poorly on the Independents who have chosen that course.

We have endured nine long years of discord, bellicosity, bullying, threats and sickening aggression in our Federal Parliament. This is without doubt one of the reasons so many Independents were elected and so many Liberal MPs were dispatched. It is immensely discouraging to see some Independents apparently signalling that it is their intention to conduct themselves in a similar manner when the hope of the majority of voters was for a far more collaborative parliament.

Of course, the media has been only too delighted to offer its co-operation, as the crossbenchers involved knew it would. There’s nothing better for clicks than a good stoush with claims of the death of democracy thrown in.

Personally, I don’t buy the argument that Albanese is de-staffing Independents in order to make it impossible for them to inform themselves about legislation and so render them useless. The theory that it's Albanese’s Machiavellian long game to disempower Independents and Greens in order to entrench the two-party system sounds an unlikely one at this point.

Yet again we, the hapless electorate, find ourselves an unwilling and exasperated audience for the performance of melodramatic spats that could and should be resolved by negotiation between the parties involved. The bad faith of the Independents who took this to media as their first, rather than their last resort, cannot be overlooked.

Their threat to block legislation over this matter is unconscionable. MPs and senators would do well to recognise that the electorate has in the main lost patience with belligerence and histrionics of the kind that has wrought so much havoc on our country for the last nine years.

If you’re going to throw all your toys out of the cot at the first obstacle you encounter, maybe you’re in the wrong job and maybe in three years' time, we’ll sack you like we sacked your predecessors.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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