16 days in Australian politics: 3 long years ahead?

Australia's 7 September election produced a conservative government that has acted swiftly on promises to reduce aid, increase defence spending and dismantle efforts to address climate change. However, a hostile Senate until July 2014 may block its legislative agenda

Felicity Ruby
23 September 2013

While counting for some seats continues, Australians have voted a conservative Liberal / National Coalition government into power.  

Australia now has a Cabinet of twenty that includes only one woman and no Ministries for Science, Housing, Disability, Youth, Climate Change, Energy or Status of Women. 

The aid budget has been cut by $4.5 billion and the aid agency will be collapsed into the Foreign Affairs Department. 

The new Defence Minister chose International Day of Peace to announce an intended $35b spend over the next ten years and that he wants to keep the military battle ready, concerned that with the draw down in Afghanistan, "we've got to maintain some interest for the troops. They've got to keep training, got to keep a level of readiness." 

The Climate Commission that provided independent expert advice to government has been abolished. Legislation is being drafted to abolish Australia's price on carbon, which has been effective in reducing emissions. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation, established to ensure Australia benefits from the renewable energy boom, has been put on notice to stop investing its $10b into Australian manufacturing and industry.

In a campaign dominated by fear of an invasion of Australia by refugees (when the country is ranked 69th by the UNHCR for per capita refugee intake), Mr. Abbott promised to "stop the boats."  Several boat loads of people fleeing conflicts and persecution have arrived since he became Prime Minister, but the new policy of the Customs and Border protection not disclosing boat arrivals would appear to be more a case of "hide the boats."  The title of Immigration Minister now includes 'and Border Security' and is charged with 'turning back the boats', a policy that places our relationship with Indonesia at grave risk and increases the likelihood that the UN will soon find Australia violating yet another 150 breaches of international refugee law.  Asylum seekers will be kept indefinitely in offshore detention, and will not have no right to appeal and legal assistance to some has been withdrawn.  

All this, and more, in just sixteen days

The burning question in Australia now is whether the government will be able to achieve its legislative agenda, given the Senate will be hostile to it with a Labor and Green majority until at least July 2014.  (The Australian Senate sits for fixed terms, changing over on 1 July.)

The government claims that it has a mandate to take the actions listed above and that other parties should ignore the mandate given to them by voters on different policy platforms. While the Electoral Commission is still counting some lower house seats, the new government needed 76 seats to win government and looks to have 91, leaving the Labor party with 55 seats, the Greens maintaining the party's first toe hold in the lower house and 3 independents joining Adam Bandt MP on the cross benches. 

Running a campaign largely on three word slogans and forbidding most candidates to participate in public forums,  the new government did not release the detail of its policies and costings until after the media advertising black out 48 hours before election day.  In addition, it submitted zero of its policies for costings by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office, while the Greens submitted 84 and the Labor party 79 in order to explain precisely what was proposed and how it would be paid for.  

Some Coalition policies were reversed even within that 48 hour period, such as the proposal to filter the internet, which the responsible shadow Minister at first defended, but after a 4 hour online campaign, described it as 'poorly worded' with a new version appearing as if by magic. 

The current Senate will prove a problem to the Abbott government. It will be prevented at least from delivering on abolishing the carbon tax, his first item of parliamentary business. Should the Senate twice reject that legislation, the trigger for a Double Dissolution of both houses of parliament, Australians will be sent back to the polls.   

It is also possible that Abbott will bide his time until July 2014 when he will have a majority at least on climate questions, if Senators representing new parties are elected, such as the Sports Party, which looks likely to pick up a Senate seat in Western Australia with 2790 primary votes, or the new Palmer United Party, invented by billionaire Clive Palmer who may put a Senator Lazarus from Queensland into the mix, or the Sex Party who may win in Tasmania, and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party who may win a Victorian Senate seat.  

The weary workers of the Australian Electoral Commission are getting through around 2% of the Senate count per day.  While it's shredding the nerves of many, they can hardly be blamed given the unprecedented number of parties running in this election, some of them created specifically to exploit Australia's preferencing system.

In some states the Senate ballot paper was a metre long and contained up to 104 boxes. Voters have the option of simply placing a 1 'above the line' for their party of choice which will apply that party's preference deal, or voting 'below the line', placing a number in each box. It is the latter, as well as postal votes, that occupy the Electoral Commission and which cause many of us to risk RSI refreshing their web pages.  

While Rupert Murdoch praised PM Abbott on a "Great first day ... firing top bureaucrats, merging departments and killing carbon tax," he added to his Tweet,  "Much more to do yet."  It's going to be a long three years. 

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Felicity Ruby is an adviser to Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. These views are her own and not that of the Senator, or the Australian Greens.   


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