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The major threat of minor parties in new Senate

7 June 2014 One Comment

WITH a new federal upper house due to convene on July 1, minor parties will be in the spotlight. Five minor parties, plus Nick Xenophon, will be represented in the new Senate and will hold the balance of power between them. The voting blocks that form out of these parties will not only determine the fate of Tony Abbott’s first budget but they could give us an insight into just how far the Senate may change in future years.

The days of the Senate being a house of review where senators represented the interests of the state or territory that elected them are long gone. Senators almost always vote along party lines rather than what’s in the best interests of the constituency that elected them — although occasionally these two do intersect. Like the major parties, none of the new senators-elect are likely to vote on issues put before them purely on the grounds of how they will affect the economy and social welfare of their state or territory. Make no mistake, all these minor parties will also be voting on issues according to their party’s policies and the driving philosophies behind them.

The Liberal Democratic Party’s senator-elect for NSW, David Leyonhjelm, recently predicted that the senators of the Palmer United Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party senator would go their own way in the future and would not be told by Clive Palmer how they should vote. But given Palmer’s immense influence and powerful personality, this is unlikely to happen.

The federal Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters has recently received some strong comments about Leyonhjelm and the LDP. There is no doubt that he owes his seat in the Senate to the fact that many voters in NSW mistook his Liberal Democratic Party for the Liberal Party. His broken preference deal with the Australian Sex Party in Victoria almost certainly stopped Fiona Patten from winning the final Senate seat that Ricky Muir for the Motoring Enthusiast Party now occupies.

Leyonhjelm has shown himself prepared to take his party into areas that its members and supporters never dreamed of by formally entering an alliance in the Senate with the Pentecostal Christian party Family First. Notwithstanding the fact that in their memorandum of understanding the two parties will not have to follow each other on social issues, LDP voters who supported people’s right to carry guns in public and supported gay marriage will be astounded that Leyonhjelm has linked them to a group that believes in creationism and the Virgin birth. Similarly, many conservative Christian voters will be gobsmacked to think they are now in bed with gun-toting, homosexual rights supporters.

At a recent Politics in the Pub event in Sydney, the psephologist Anthony Green debated the Sex Party’s Patten on the likely effects of the recommendations of the parliamentary committee. Both agreed that these proposed changes would force aggregations to occur among minor parties with somewhat similar philosophies.

It would be surprising if the parties represented on that parliamentary committee (Liberal, Labor and Greens) did not realise that their recommendations could benefit their own political interests viz a viz minor parties. But these committee members may have inadvertently shot themselves in the foot by recommending optional preferential voting above the line for future federal elections. This is because it could cause some electorally appealing alliances to form. With a much smaller Senate ballot paper, these new alliances — many of them about “lifestyle and freedom of choice — could see more minor parties in the Senate rather than less. As the striking success of the Palmer United Party has shown, many voters are sick of traditional parliamentary politics, the backroom deals, the factions, the broken promises and the self-importance major party politicians often attach to themselves.

So what sort of alliances can we expect? To start with, there could be an alliance formed by some if not all of the five religious parties that contest elections — the Christian Democrats, Family First, Australian Christians, Rise Up Australia and the DLP. They share a belief Australia should be governed by the Christian principles extolled in the Bible. Family First’s alliance with the Liberal Democrats could cause problems with this, as could the fact that the DLP is already in parliament and might find it hard to join forces with the Pentecostal Rise Up Australia Party.

At a much more minor level we might see alliances forming between parties such as the Bullet Train for Australia Party, the Mutual Party (formerly the Bank Reform Party), Australian Voice Party, the Building Australia Party, 21st Century Party and even Bob Katter’s Australian Party and the Australian Protectionist Party, while on the other hand Smokers’ Rights, One Nation and the Citizens Electoral Council could all form some form of politically incorrect alliance.

However, the amalgamation of a group of loosely based “freedom parties could well be the one that attracts more votes than any other. This group would include the Sex Party, HEMP, Voluntary Euthanasia Party, The Democrats, The Pirate Party, WikiLeaks, Drug Law Reform Party and even The Natural Medicine Party.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, June 7-8, 2014, Commentary, p 22.

One Comment »

  • Peter Smith said:

    A deserved plague

    The government and the opposition have only themselves to blame for the lack of public concern about the mishmash of senators (” The major threat of minor parties in new Senate”) 7-8/6) who will join the new Senate.

    The mishmash is a well-deserved plague on both the Coalition and the ALP.

    Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW.

    Letter to the Editor, The Australian, June 9, 2014.

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