Outrage over crossbench staff cuts, but bluster on all sides

On the morning after his election victory, much was made of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s call to “change the way that politics operates in this country”.

Those who noted the sharp increase in the number of crossbench MPs were reminded that Albanese had been leader of the House in Julia Gillard’s minority government, when good relations with key crossbenchers were crucial to passing legislation. “He knows what it’s like in terms of dealing with people respectfully across the chamber,” Gillard told the ABC earlier this month.

Crossbench MPs and senators including Pauline Hanson, Helen Haines, Jacqui Lambie, David Pocock and Zali Steggall have been told they will be allocated fewer staff than before.Credit:Fairfax Media

Friday’s announcement that incoming crossbenchers would see their allocation of advisers cut from four to one was portrayed by ministers as a response to tighter budgetary conditions, and by Albanese as a return to “normal” after Scott Morrison’s largesse in this area.

But the independents and crossbenchers were always going to complain loudly, and so they have. Instead of cups of tea and a chat, we have had days of megaphones at 20 paces.

Perhaps there is a compromise on the way but, really, why should crossbenchers have eight staff, while backbenchers have just four? The government has offered them one extra personal adviser, plus the four electorate officers everyday backbenchers enjoy. Perhaps they deserve one more to cope with the challenges of having to be across the sweep of legislation, but cutting their staff from eight to five doesn’t seem outrageous.

There are dangers and opportunities for the crossbenchers. The threat by some to block legislation in the Senate until the government backs down on staffing – they claim they may not be able to properly scrutinise bills – must surely be an option of last resort. One of the reasons they were elected is that voters have had enough of wrecking tactics in parliament and want to get things done. Kooyong MP Monique Ryan’s warning that the independents will now target Labor seats at future elections because of this decision was disingenuous – as if keeping their staffing numbers would have meant no challenges to Labor.

It is to be hoped that the new arrivals and their more senior crossbench colleagues can work out ways to support each other, both in constructive negotiations with the government over staffing and in the longer term should those talks prove fruitless.

On election night, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek insisted that as far as the ALP was concerned, “a win is a win”. Yet, as both major parties have discovered in the past decade, wins can be frittered away and political capital wasted. The challenges ahead – environmental, geopolitical, economic and social – require renewed attention to governing on behalf of all Australians, and that means more than lip service to their elected representatives, especially from a government with a slim majority.

The crossbenchers of all political persuasions deserve to be treated with respect, but not with kid gloves. We are entering a fascinating time in Australian politics, and one in which the major parties may never dominate in quite the same way as before. The new government needs to consult and bring people with it where it can. On some issues, the crossbench will have some sway; on others, the government will pursue the agenda it took to the election. The independents represent just one electorate; the government must have a broader agenda.

A compromise on staffing can be found, but the rhetoric has been politics as usual.

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