The crossbench is dead. Greens and indies are a third force in Parliament

Post date:

Author:

Category:

The crossbench is dead. Greens and indies are a third force in Parliament

The House of Representatives has become a European-style multipolar assembly. The times they are a-changin'.

With the loss of at least 17 seats for the Liberals means the Coalition has lost 22 per cent of the seats it held in the previous parliament. This is similar to the size of the loss for Labor when Tony Abbott won government in 2013.

Guy Rundle writes in Crikey

Waking amid half-empty bottles, dried sick and dead roaches (figuratively and literally), and despite all efforts to remain jaded and louche, your correspondent regrets to report feelings of excitement, hope and possibilities.

Labor victory — rah! More Greens — rah! But it’s the vast crossbench that really makes this special. Not because of its specific politics, much of which is too, well, tealy for me, but because of the structural transformation of politics it has created.

You’d have to say that the term “crossbench” doesn’t really describe the new arrangements. “Crossbench” is obviously, literally, a purely spatial one. Bob Katter is of the right, no matter what noises he makes about economic nationalism; the Greens obviously to the left. But there’s always been some sort of notion of the small groups and individuals there, moving between the major parties on either side.

How well does that describe what this election has given us? Not at all, I would have said, and the Westminster system idea of a crossbench obscures what has occurred, and exactly what has happened. We may have a 16-member crossbench. Exclude Katter and that gives you one left party (the Greens), one left-Green independent (Andrew Wilkie), a Labor-stronghold (!) independent (Dai Le), the teals as a social-liberal grouping, and two members from mildly centre-right electorates (Helen Haines and Rebekha Sharkie).

The difficulty with the concept of crossbench comes with imagining any possibility that any of these people would want to cooperate with the Coalition on any proposed legislation it could possibly come up with. There may well be — eventually — policies that could issue from the Coalition on economic matters that some teals might support, either personally or out of electorate demand.

But can anyone imagine that happening now, or in the next year? With the memory of Scott Morrison still fresh, and Peter Dutton not yet completing this marvellous makeover we’re being told about, the Coalition is toxic sludge. The vote for teals was clear: it was a vote for progressive candidates not as economically left as the Greens, but whose policies were all turned away from the Liberal Party.

In other words, the teals are not a successor to the Liberal Movement or the earlier Australian Democrats, groups explicitly positioning themselves in a dialogue with both parties, and as a sort of “loyal opposition” to the Liberal Party, which those earlier groups saw as having become a tad reactionary when it was far more to the left than it is now. The teals represent a new relationship between economic class, social class and political representation in Australia. (For a look at the early process of this forming, see my report on Kooyong Climate Action from 2019, which marks, so far as I can tell from a bit of searching, the first published use of the term “teal” for the light-blue that non-Green climate candidates were choosing. Happy to be corrected.)

What has happened cannot be accommodated on a single left-right spectrum. And it is quite extraordinary. The House of Representatives has become a multipolar house of assembly, without requiring the arrangement that usually makes that possible — multi-member proportional voting electorates. The Greens, teals, Wilkie and centre-independents now form a (loyal) progressive opposition, whose polar force begins to approach that of the Coalition opposition.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the numbers. The Coalition opposition, if it holds together, will number about 52-54. Minus the Nats, the Liberal Party caucus room (including LNP Liberals) will number about 40-42 in the new Parliament. Forty out of 151! But wait, it gets better! If you strip out the Liberal-caucusing LNP seats, and regard it as a separate party — one which only lost a single seat, 23 down to 22 — then the Liberal Party of Australia has 26 seats in the new Parliament. Twenty-six seats, from five states and two territories, for the party that once ran the joint for decades on end.

At this stage, 10 Liberal seats have fallen to Labor, including four in which the incumbent retired. These are John Alexander (Bennelong), Nicolle Flint (Boothby), Gladys Liu (Chisholm), Ken Wyatt (Hasluck), Katie Allen (Higgins), Christian Porter (Pearce), Fiona Martin (Reid), Lucy Wicks (Robertson), Steve Irons (Swan) and Ben Morton (Tangney).

A further six Liberals lost to independents: Celia Hammond (Curtin), Tim Wilson (Goldstein), Josh Frydenberg (Kooyong), Jason Falinski (Mackellar), Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney) and Dave Sharma (Wentworth).

First-term MP Julian Simmonds has lost Ryan to the Greens.
On the Labor side, at this stage it has lost two seats it previously held. Kristina Keneally failed to retain Fowler, where incumbent Chris Hayes retired, and independent Dai Le will represent the seat. Terri Butler has conceded the loss of Brisbane-based Griffith to the Greens’ Max Chandler-Mather.

A net loss of at least 17 seats for the Liberals means the Coalition has lost 22 per cent of the seats it held in the previous parliament. This is similar to the size of the loss for Labor when Tony Abbott won government in 2013. The difference this time is the huge expansion of the crossbench, rather than Labor picking up all the seats.

The Coalition holds its lowest proportion of seats as a share of parliament since the Liberal Party first ran at the 1946 election.

Looking at it that way, the crossbenchers, minus poor old lonely Bobby K, can be seen as a third force, with sufficient shared ground on many of the most pressing issues of the day to have a political identity. Indeed, you could see it as having left (Green), centre (teal, Wilkie) and right (Haines, Sharkie) factions. That conception of them should not only come from outside; it should also come from within. Doubtless it already has, and the non-Green new members involved are working out ways in which to communicate and coordinate without becoming a party, or looking like one, which would become poisonous. Presumably, or hopefully, there will then be some form of process by which the teals communicate, coordinate and also differ with the Greens.

That is not going to be easy. Once the triumph and the cheering has died away, reality asserts itself. Parties work not merely as organisational frames but because they rein in individualism, not simply by application of the rules but by mythic and ritual practice — signing up, swearing in, colours, the social round, history, sacred ancestors and the like. Party discipline doesn’t need to be applied because it becomes, to some degree, internalised. Partydom can tame anarchy in the head before it becomes action.

The independents, even as some sort of network, don’t have that.
They will have newer versions of that — greater social intelligence, dialogue,
a degree of self-awareness arising from a largely female professional grouping

but independence is independence.

Parliament is a theatre of emotion as much as reason. Labor may well make its clear majority, but it will be razor-thin if so — and in the case of some members, one jumbo bucket of hot chips away from a post-mortem byelection. You can bet it will be playing divide-and-rule — softer, subtler, but present nevertheless — from day one.

All the more reason then for this third force to find a way early on, to symbolically present itself as such without getting tagged as a party or a caucus, and without surrendering the notion of independence.

That may not be easy either but expanding this transformation, in state elections and byelections to come, would seem to demand making clear in the public eye that this is not simply a provisional development in the two/three/four party business-as-usual idea of politics.

It has arisen because, in a post-industrial, post-traditional society the relationship between social class, self, voice and knowledge has changed dramatically.

In Westminster systems, Australia has, through sheer force of contradictions, innovated once again.

(New Zealand? Doesn’t count. It shifted to multi-member proportional.)