Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal colleagues have had a very poor election. The result in the Senate only confirms just how bad the 2016 contest was for the Coalition.
One seat away from being in minority government, the returned Turnbull government can now add arguably one of the most diverse and potentially volatile senates ever elected in Australia to its list of political problems.
When the Senate finally convenes, the Coalition will hold 30 seats – nine short of the majority it would need to have legislation passed. Across the chamber will sit 26 Labor senators, nine Green senators and a further 11 crossbench senators from six different political parties.
Upper house woes
When Turnbull took over as prime minister, the government had to that point been struggling with a non-Green crossbench of nine.
So difficult had these senators become, Turnbull resorted to doing deals with the Greens on occasion to get some bills through. This included one to alter the Senate voting system to do away with party tickets. Turnbull justified this as a reform that would assist in eradicating “micro” parties.
This reform has not delivered on its promise, although Turnbull contributed to its failure by calling a double-dissolution election and, in so doing, demonstrating yet again just how poor his political judgement can be.
One wonders if Liberal strategists planning the double dissolution foresaw that not only would Pauline Hanson return to the Australian parliament, but that she would bring three fellow senators with her.
Turnbull’s upper house woes don’t stop there. There are now two more acolytes of Nick Xenophon in the Senate – and one in the lower house – and two of the micro-party senators who were the target of Turnbull’s changes to the voting system, Bob Day from Family First and David Leyonhjelm from the Liberal Democrats. They are back and presumably angry with the government for the way it treated them in the previous parliament.
With this phalanx of people from the social conservative and populist right arranged against it, the Coalition’s only alternative is to deal with the left – either Labor or the Greens.
Cynics might suggest this is an outcome that Turnbull might be comfortable with personally, but it is a fair bet the rest of the Coalition would not be so happy to deal with ideological enemies – especially on matters like climate change and same-sex marriage.
How will the government deal with it?
To conclude on the basis of this that the government might struggle to get its agenda through the Senate would be the political understatement of the year.
One way around the potential for the Senate to frustrate the government would be to try to minimise the amount of legislation going before it. It is unlikely this would appeal to Turnbull.
The alternatives to legislative minimalism are either seeking to make policy by trying to negotiate with all the different players in the upper house (and wearing the consequential compromises), or taking the Whitlamesque approach of being constantly defeated in the Senate and seeking to campaign against upper house obstructionism in the court of public opinion.
We will get an early insight into the government’s likely approach. The Constitution gives Turnbull the option of bringing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bills that triggered the double dissolution to a joint sitting of the parliament, if the Senate again rejects them.
What Turnbull does here will probably set the tone for the next three years. There are reports the government has been in dialogue already with the crossbench over the legislation – the subtext being that the ABCC bills might pass with substantial modifications to appease the concerns of the Xenophon bloc in particular.
This sort of bargaining would have to extend to all the other right-wing populists and social conservatives as well, given Labor and the Greens will surely not support these bills.
There is enormous scope for the government’s efforts to come to nothing and for the bills to be defeated at a joint sitting. This would be a very humiliating start to the new government cycle.
Each defeat in the upper house at the hands of the right-of-centre minor parties will be a humiliation of Turnbull and will undermine the impression he is trying to give that he is leading a moderate and mildly progressive government that can get things done.
Turnbull’s only recourse might be to ring up his recently acquired political ally, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, to see if his nine-person bloc might come to his aid.
This approach would incense the very large block of conservatives within the Coalition who are already angry with Turnbull for his abysmal election performance. This is the real danger for Turnbull. Senate defeats can be withstood, but humiliation at the hands of the joint partyroom could be fatal to his leadership.
Authors: Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University