Businessmen and women looking at Australian politics might feel they are living in a Dickensian novel with the return of Federal Parliament this week:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of believe, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.)
The 2 July double dissolution election had been called by Prime Minister Turnbull to break the parliamentary impasse that had stalled key Government legislation, in particular the bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The Prime Minister had also hoped that changes to the way the Senate is elected would result in a less fractious and hostile upper house. That backfired badly. The chamber is now controlled by 20 cross-bench Senators representing a number of minor parties and their disparate policy agendas – Greens (9), One Nation (4), Nick Xenophon Team (3), Liberal Democrats (1), Jacqui Lambie Network (1), Derryn Hinch Justice Party (1), and Family First (1).
Additionally the Government holds the slenderest of majority’s in the House of Representatives – one seat.
The Government will have its work cut out for it. Among the issues at the top of its agenda are a number of “hangovers” from the previous parliament: re-establishing the ABCC, budget repair, changes to superannuation tax, reducing the company tax, media ownership reforms, and a plebiscite on the divisive issue of marriage equality. (For those who are interested, The Australian has a useful graphic showing the top 25 issues on the Coalition’s legislative slate and the positions of the various parties in the Senate in relation to the issues. Interestingly the positions of many of the minor parties remain unknown on many of the issues to come before the Senate.)
Bonfire of vanities
Other issues that the Prime Minister has tried to park as lower priorities are dividing the Coalition. For example the “hard right” of the Liberal Party (and Coalition partner the Nationals) want the Government to also repeal Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, which they say stifles free speech, during this, the 45th Australian Parliament. The Prime Minister has not been helped by his predecessor, Tony Abbott, throwing fuel on the fire by saying last week his failing as Prime Minister was to not address these issues early after coming to power in 2013 – something that has appealed to the so-called DelCons (short for “Delusional Conservatives”) who continue to support Mr Abbott.
As we go to press it looks like the plebiscite on gay marriage may prove stillborn. The Labor Party suggested last week that it would not support legislation to implement the plebiscite, preferring the issue to be resolved by the parliament. This was already the position held by the Greens. Today the Nick Xenophon Team said it would also not support the legislation. That means the Senate would be evenly split 38-38 votes on the issue, assuming the Coalition can secure the support of all the remaining crossbenchers. But if the anti-plebiscite camp can pull one more Senator to its side the Coalition will have lost. With One Nation, the Liberal Democrats, Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie yet to declare a position it will make for an interesting period of argy-bargy. Expect to see a good deal of political horse trading over this issue in the next few weeks.
What does this mean for business?
Surely, this can’t bode well for business? Or, can it?
The Government is going to have to trade horses with those sitting on the Senate cross-benches on a range of issues. This could prove an opportunity for businesses trying to stall, end or effect legislation. The trick will be to identify which crossbenchers are likely to support a specific position and find ways to convince them to do so. It is important to remember that although the minor parties focus on a small range of issues, they all have a say in legislation brought before the parliament. Many also have spokespersons covering issues that are of importance to business. For example, they have spokespersons responsible for small business, banking and financial services, and mining and energy. It is therefore imperative that business understands the positions of these crossbenchers on issues of importance to their industries. It also is important that business establishes relationships with these crossbenchers as well as with the main parties.
You never know when you’re going to need assistance from a crossbencher.
As the Chinese proverb has it: “When there is turmoil under Heaven, little problems are dealt with as if they were big problems, and big problems are not dealt with at all.” Thus it is a good time for companies to promote agendas that are important to their particular sectors and on which they may be able to engender the support of the minor parties.
It is indeed the best of times, the worst of times, and the most opportune of times.
By Alistair Nicholas, Executive Vice President – Director, Special Projects.
He was an advisor to the Federal Coalition earlier in his career.
Alistair can be reached at email@example.com