MDIA2003_19 MDIA2003_19_P2 Society Tues3.30 (2019)

The upper hand in the Upper House

Since 1988, no government has had a majority in the Upper House, meaning that the balance of power rests on minor party and independent members. In the wake of the recent state election, Jelena Zaric investigates the role and purpose in dynamic these representatives play.

March’s state election saw the appointment of six minor party members to the Legislative Council, bringing the cross bench up to eleven and making up over a quarter of seats in the House. The unprecedented success of minor parties such as the Animal Justice and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Parties has prompted the government, the opposition and the public to the importance and influence of these minor parties in the current political climate. 

“I think independents and minor parties and the cross bench generally can play a really important role in improving democratic outcomes of the parliament, transparency and accountability through the parliament,” says Justin Field, a former Greens Legislative Council representative who split from the party to sit as an independent prior to the by-election. 

“It’s not just political spin, but the house represents the vote of the public. You can’t dispute it, it is what it is, but, interestingly, it does reflect – it’s more diverse now than it was before and it actually creates its own balance which will be very interesting,” says Mr Field. 

It’s this diversity that allowed the unlikely Animal Justice Party candidate, Emma Hurst, to beat out  David Leyonhjelm for a seat in the recent election. She points to a lack of government attention to specific areas for this surge of interest in very specific agendas. 

“The fact that we’ve still got intensive farming, the fact that we’ve still got legalised puppy farming and cruel practices occurring to animals, proves that the government of the day or the government of previous days hasn’t acted to protect animals and that’s why people are voting in for these minor parties,” she says. 

Former President of the Legislative Council and political scientist, Meredith Burgmann, identifies a similar explanation for the recent success of the Shooters Party. “They’re the country party you have when The Nationals have moved so far into the city orbit that people in the country don’t see them as representing them anymore, so I think we’ll see far less emphasis on anything to do with guns from the shooters and a lot to do with water, water rights and regional issues generally,” she says. 

How these minor party members interact with the government and opposition is crucial in legislative outcomes. Ms Burgmann says striking deals with the major parties is part and parcel of being a minor party member. 

“Very few cross benchers, in my experience, go in saying ‘I’m gonna do deals’, but inevitably they always end up doing it, because it’s the only way to progress your agenda, because you’re never going to have enough votes to do it yourself. So even on something that you suspect you can get a majority for – something like puppy farming – Animal Justice thinks ‘oh we can get both sides to support that’, but what they don’t realise is that both sides will both want something back from them if they’re going to support it.” 

“Look, we will work with any other major party that is willing to work on animal protection issues,” says Ms Hurst. It seems this is a tradition that some minority members are aware of from the outset, focusing on their agenda primarily and doing whatever it takes to push it to the forefront.

Mr Field sees the unique position as an independent cross bencher as an opportunity to make changes and break down the “hyper-partisanship” he cites as a reason for leaving his former party.  

“The Greens have been quite vocal in the past about not wanting to work with a Coalition government and whilst I don’t see myself voting with the Coalition and against The Greens on any particular issue, I think that that reflects an unwillingness to engage with the government who clearly have the ability to make changes for the positive benefit for the environment,” he says. 

Despite Mr Field’s unexpected separation from The Greens, Ms Burgmann identifies party splits as a symptom of minor parties in the Upper House and Australian politics in general.  

“At the time I was in parliament, every single minor party grouping split at some stage – some of them two or three times during the time I was there. So, there’s this endless reconfiguration of who the cross benchers are and my prediction is that One Nation has got two cross benchers in this new parliament and that they will split very, very soon.”

She says this is due to an individualist rather than collectivist attitude and a “fairly healthy view of their own importance”, but that this mentality can be seen most within the right-wing minor parties. Perhaps this sense of self is responsible for a lack of reply from One Nation and the Shooters Party members for comment. 

It’s easy to assume that members of major parties can sit idly and leave the bulk of the work to the button-pushers and string-pullers of the party, but Ms Burgmann says it’s the cross benchers that are more likely to be guilty of this behaviour. 

“The cross benchers have no scrutiny at all. Who is telling them what they’ve got to do or not do? No one,” says Burgmann. “On the whole, the cross benchers; the main issue for them is just lack of oversight.” Ms Hurst says she hasn’t been in office long enough to comment on other MPs’ abilities, however adds “I’m a bit of a workaholic, so I’m sure I will be doing a lot more than maybe some others.” 

With the Coalition losing three seats and Labor gaining two at the last election, the numbers in the Legislative Council are tighter than the last term and the importance of the cross bench is even more apparent than before. So what exactly can we expect from this Legislative Council? 

Ms Burgmann is tipping One Nation and the Shooters as the ones to watch. Despite his pledge of allegiance to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Burgmann says Latham could swing either way. And there are already talks of unlikely alliances and deals struck between One Nation and the Animal Justice Party

When it comes to cross benchers, no deals are off limits. While we can’t guarantee where loyalties yet lie, we can certainly say that the proclivities of this term’s cross bench will be instrumental in shaping the landscape of legislature and governance over the next four years.