If, as is very likely, Labor wins with a small but workable majority today, Bill Shorten will be in similar territory as Gough Whitlam in 1972: half a decade of Opposition leadership; a clear mandate for reforms laid out before the election; a hostile Senate; and chilly economic winds on the way.
The big difference, though, is Shorten’s ministers are experienced and will not go off on individual crusades like Whitlam’s did.
Also, the Senate will not block Supply as in 1975, but the Senate still has to be dealt with if it blocks legislation for mandated policy, especially revenue measures that will fund other promises.
With six senators in each state up for election, the most likely Senate result will be for the Coalition to lose one of its three seats in South Australia and for Labor to lose its third seat in Tasmania but gain a second seat in each of NSW and South Australia. The Greens will be hoping for the re-election of one senator in each state, leaving various populists (Palmer’s United Australia, One Nation, Centre Alliance, Hinch etc) to get one seat in each state.
Come 1 July, then, overall the Senate will most likely have 29 Coalition; 27 Labor; 9 Greens and 11 populists.
To get contentious legislation through Labor will need all the Greens and three of the 11 populists.
That is going to be a big ask for the revenue measures. It is so easy for minor-party senators to support popular spending measures and reject tough revenue measures. That’s one of the reasons they are called populists.
Some have already expressed misgivings about Labor’s negative-gearing and capital-gains changes.
Whether those views change if Labor wins and obtains a mandate is another matter. They should change because Labor laid it all out before the election.
So a strategy for Labor would be to emphasise the link between the two and be specific about it and to change the usual game of bribe a minor-party senator with a spending gift for their state into a game of embarrass a minor-party senator by taking away a pre-election promises to spend in their state because they refused to pass the revenue measure to pay for them.
Labor could abandon is splash on Victorian public transport if, say, Senator Hinch (if re-elected) does not vote for the revenue measures, and blame him. Similarly with Tasmania and Jacqui Lambie if she is elected and South Australia and the Centre Alliance.
Labor should not make the mistake of going to a double dissolution if thwarted by the Senate as Whitlam did. Double dissolutions exhaust political good will and are rarely fought solely over the rejected measures. Moreover, the blocking minor parties generally like double dissolutions in which the quota to get elected is smaller.
If elected, the Senate is going to be Labor’s biggest problem. Without the revenue which the populists are unlikely to support the whole reform agenda unravels. To keep it together, Labor will have to find a way to blame non-delivery of state-specific promises on the minor-party senators from that state.
The effect that the fall of the total major-party vote from around 90 before the 1970s to around 70 per cent now has had on the Senate poses a long-term problem for Australian politics. It means that, by and large, every half-Senate election Labor and the Coalition will each get two seats in each state and minor parties will get the remaining two, resulting long-term in a Senate (including the territories) usually comprising of 26 Coaltion, 26 Labor and 24 minor parties. (The minor parties never get a territory seat.)
That makes the task of getting anything done very difficult because it is far easier to block something than approve something, other than, of course, when the Government is handing out lollies, which so often is not in the nation’s economic interests anyway.
The power of the Senate is very much unfinished business in Australia. The power to block the money supply so the government cannot govern is still there as is the power of the Governor-General to sack an elected Government, even if neither is very likely to be used.
But the blocking of legislation for which a Government has a mandate is still commonplace and the remedy – the double dissolution – too disruptive and drastic.
One way to deal with it would be a constitutional amendment to allow the House of Representatives on it own to pass legislation twice rejected in the Senate in the previous term. The two major parties might agree on that.
The prospect of getting only two senators in each state also poses a problem for the Coaltion – in how many states should it give one of the two winnable spots to the National Party, if any?
The two other policies that will be difficult to manage for a Labor Government, if elected, will be the republic and Indigenous recognition. The Senate will be less of a problem for these reforms than pockets of ardent proponents and opponents of each.
The big difficulty is the one of the dog chasing its tail. People saying I cannot tell you if I support a republic or Indigenous recognition until I know what sort of republic or Indigenous recognition. And others saying what is the point of asking me to choose between models if we cannot tell whether a majority even want a republic or Indigenous recognition. And still others saying, I am not interested in a republic until we settle Indigenous recognition or I am not interested in Indigenous recognition until we are a republic.
These divisions are ripe for conservatives to block progress on either with the help of supporters of the republic or Indigenous recognition who demand it be done their way or not at all. This happened, of course, in the 1999 republic referendum when the Australia public, which overall favoured a republic, voted it down.
Since then we have had a fashion walk of glamorous young royals producing a clutch of gooey babies handing monarchists richly undeserved support. Sure, they are now a nice family, but they are not our family.
It is time Australia settled some of these big constitutional and national-identity issues as well as crafting an effective emission-reduction and energy policy and dealing with growing inequality.
Good luck, Bill.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 18 May 2019.