Media: Beat up about the Senate beating up Labor?

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Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernadi (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

The Liberal Party and radical Right-wing nexus charged up a cog this week promoting a yarn about the “crossbench” in the Senate killing off any Labor Government reform program.

Media editor Lee Duffield says the scheme being splashed in Right-wing news services draws a long bow — it supposes voters are as worked up about the intricacies of politics as certain media are and it predicts that the “crossbench” they want is the one that gets elected on 18 May.

THE “CROSSBENCHERS” story flowed on from hooking up the Government parties, Liberal and National, in election preference deals with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.


That is exactly the kind of tie-up overtly promoted over recent years by the News Corp stable, making the Liberals be more Right wing. It was worked up by the said “crossbenchers” themselves — and guess which newspaper.

The Australian opened proceedings with Tuesday’s front page:

‘Crossbench Senators reject Labor tax grab.’

It took on for a few hours in various other media. Are there presumed dopes or closet conservatives in the ABC who read the paper and swallowed it? There was nothing in the broadcaster’s coverage to confirm whether the Right-wing groups would end up with the numbers they’d need — no questioning whether they should speak for the whole crossbench.

Here is the story, as lifted, in the Radio National breakfast show

“Fresh doubts are being cast over the $60 billion in spending promises made by Labor with key senators threatening to block revenue raising measures, such as changes to negative gearing and franking credits.”


The “key senators” would have to include ones elected this year. Only two from the extreme Right are holding seats through to the next elections scheduled for 2022 — Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi of Australian Conservatives.

Labor frontbenchers responded by talking about having a mandate if they won the elections; they did not presume to predict how many Palmers or Hansons would, or would not, actually get in.

It may be stimulating for some to work up a story about an incoming Government strangled at birth by a hostile upper house, run by the opposition and its radical allies.

But it may be interesting as well to do a reality check and consider who else might be in that upper house when all the voting is done with.


There has been a history of governments – Labor and conservative – successfully negotiating their way with the Senate.

While nobody can tell the outcome of the coming elections, we have numbers on voting trends that can help balance up the storytelling with something more down-to-Earth.

The composition of parties in the Senate has become a mess over the last few years. This was partly caused by Senators coming and going because of the dual citizenship crisis. It was also caused by indiscipline in the small parties on the extreme Right. Several of those swapped parties or jumped ship from their party to declare themselves independents.

There was some additional instability in the mix caused by the fact that the entire Senate was elected in a “double dissolution” last time, in 2016. Half the Senators in each state, the first-elected candidates, are staying through to 2022 to have a full six-year term and the trailing ones have to stand for re-election this year.


Which ones are staying and will be there when the new Senate starts business when scheduled, in 2020?

Parliament House figures show that there will be 15 from the Coalition (12 Liberal, three National), 14 Labor, three Greens, one Australian Conservatives (Bernardi group), one One Nation (Hanson group) and two from the Centre Alliance (formerly Xenophon group in South Australia). The total is 36 — half the Senate less two Senators from the Territories. (Under the Electoral Act, those two Territory Senators have their terms cut off with this year’s election, so both Senate seats from the Australian Capital Territory and both from the Northern Territory are up for election now.)

What is the possible outcome this year for the other 40, given that until election day on 18 May the answer can’t be more than informed guesswork, using standards like what happened three years ago and trends in published polls?

It can start by giving Liberal-National and Labor a minimum of two Senators each in all the states, 12-12 — their primary vote should deliver two “quotas” of 16.5 per cent in any state. Assuming that they each win one in both territories (two Senators per territory up for re-election at once), the margin would become 14-14. The Greens’ track record indicates they can obtain a seat in each state and on that reckoning the numbers would become 14-14-6.

The tighter issue is the sixth seat in each state and here is a bold stab at how the vote available to the extreme-Right parties (their own votes plus preferences passed on from the Liberals) may pan out: one of them in New South Wales, judging from the shooters’ performances there in State Elections, One Nation or Clive Palmer (UAP) in Queensland, another in Western Australia which even in a “Labor” year has a history of returning One Nation or similar — so three new Senators from the radical right: 14-14-6-3.

Then count Jacqui Lambie as a likely comeback in Tasmania, independent Derryn Hinch getting returned in Victoria and a possible Centre Alliance senator in South Australia, completing with 14-14-6-3-3.


Adding those to the half-Senate staying on to 2022, the Senate for 2020 would be:

ALP 28, Liberals–National Party 29, Greens nine, extreme right five, others (Lambie, Hinch, Centre Alliance Senators) five.

In that Senate it would mean that where Labor received support from the Greens, it would still need to get two other votes. (A main point is whether the Greens do get a Senator in each state).

Counting up a set of numbers like that is simple enough arithmetic. It is not such simple politics — and not so simple as this week’s yarn about some long tail made up of “key crossbenchers” (which is to say Senators from small far-Right groups) wagging the Government dog.

CORRECTION. Lee Duffield writes: ‘This piece as originally published had only two Senate seats up for election this year from the territories — one seat each. However all four territory senators (two from the A.C.T., two from the NT) are being contested on Saturday, as was indicated in the link to the Parliament House figures and as is pointed out by informed reader, Maureen McInroy — thank you to MM.’

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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