Turnbull's bid to win Senate majority backfires

Australia's PM Malcolm Turnbull listens to a question during a press conference in Sydney on August 4.
Australia's PM Malcolm Turnbull listens to a question during a press conference in Sydney on August 4.PHOTO: AFP

Upper House now even more unwieldy after Aussie PM's decision to call early election

As Australia's election officials yesterday formally signed off on the results of the federal election on July 2, the final tally revealed the grim political challenges facing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

Despite winning a slim overall victory, he failed to take control of the Upper House, or Senate - instead, he went backwards.

His ruling Liberal-National Coalition achieved a 76-74 majority in the 150-member Lower House but won just 30 seats in the 76-member Upper House, down from 33.

The  Labor opposition won 26 Senate seats, up from 25. 

The Greens won nine, down one, leaving a total crossbench of 20 MPs, including a ragtag bunch of micro-parties and independents. The Coalition will need the support of nine of them to secure much of its legislative agenda.

The unwieldy  Senate crossbench - the largest in history - will include a surprising four MPs from Ms Pauline Hanson's anti-migrant, anti-Muslim One Nation party. The party's MPs include Mr Malcolm Roberts, who believes climate change is a scam, and Mr Rod Culleton, who yesterday had a larceny conviction overturned but still faces trial over his alleged theft of a hire car.

There are also three MPs from a new party led by popular South Australian independent Nick Xenophon, an anti-gambling crusader who is socially liberal but has a protectionist economic bent.

The final four independents, including outspoken Tasmanian Jacqui Lambie  and veteran broadcaster Derryn Hinch - an anti-paedophile activist - tend to be right-wing or conservative.

The expansion of this 11-member micro-party crossbench,  up from eight MPs previously, represents a dismal failure for Mr Turnbull, who called an early election specifically to try to secure a Senate majority.  The so-called double dissolution election involved the re-election of all senators - rather than half as at standard polls - but has left Mr Turnbull much weaker.

The views of the incoming cross- bench, aside from the Greens, are disparate and difficult to predict, but most tend to oppose foreign investment and privatisation.

Analysts say Mr Turnbull will find it difficult to pass some of his election policies, including large-scale corporate tax cuts and measures to combat union corruption. He may also struggle to introduce enabling legislation for a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. Labor, the Greens and Mr Xenophon have all signalled they want Parliament to vote on the issue - a move that would be less costly and avoid a potentially fiery public debate.

An expert on Australian politics, Dr Nick Economou from Monash University, says Mr Turnbull faces "one of the most diverse and potentially volatile Senates ever elected".

"Calling a double dissolution election… demonstrated yet again just how poor Mr Turnbull's political judgement can be," he wrote on The Conversation website.

"With this phalanx of people from the social conservative and populist right arranged against it, the Coalition's only alternative is to deal with the left… It is a fair bet the rest of the Coalition would not be so happy to deal with ideological enemies - especially on matters like climate change and same-sex marriage."

Perhaps wisely, Mr Turnbull has so far attempted to reach out to the crossbench, offering assistance and government resources. In a radio interview last Friday, he said he would "respect" all crossbench MPs, including Ms Hanson, whom he has previously criticised.

With Parliament set to resume on Aug 30, Canberra is set for turbulence, with some pundits predicting that Mr Turnbull will struggle to complete a three-year term. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull's bid to win Senate majority backfires'. Print Edition | Subscribe