Has the little guy had his day?

March 23, 2018

Federal Political Editor, Sarah Martin, asks this question in an opinion piece in today’s West Australian newspaper. Her conclusions imply that Australian Conservatives are here to stay:

“Being a vertically challenged individual, I’ve always had a soft spot for the little guy.

The bee that stings a bear, the flea that bites the bottom of the Pope in Rome as Gavroche in Les Miserables sang — it’s the classic David and Goliath battle with broad appeal.

Politics in Australia has always had its fair share of underdogs prepared to have a scrap with the major parties, many of which have coalesced around prominent individuals.

Federal Parliament has had a revolving door of personality-based parties and rogue independents in recent years, with the likes of Clive Palmer, Jacqui Lambie, Nick Xenophon, Cory Bernardi, Derryn Hinch and Pauline Hanson all becoming household names.

Whether from the far left, far right or anywhere in between, each runs a similar narrative:

The two-party system is broken, and electing the fiercely independent protest party or individual will allow you to stick it up the duopoly.

It’s the old slogan from the Democrats to keep the bastards honest. But the government watch-dogs have been having a hard time of late.

Since the last election, Hanson’s One Nation has dropped from four to three senators, while the Nick Xenophon Team has lost its eponymous figurehead and now controls only two votes in the Upper House.

Two elections last weekend —the Batman by-election in Victoria and the South Australian State election — were seen as major tests for the minors.

In Batman, the Greens were favourite to pick up a second seat in the House of Representatives, knocking off a seat held by Labor for all but two terms since 1910, while in South Australia Xenophon was hoping to win a swag of seats and the balance of power.

Instead, his party bombed, with the final result delivering him a primary vote of just 14 per cent after beginning the campaign with more than 30 per cent and looking like a possible kingmaker, or even premier.

The spectacularly awful result will give him just two seats in the Legislative Council — the same number he won in 2006 (except he won’t be one of them, having failed in his bid to win a Lower House seat).

Likewise in Batman, the Greens went from hero to zero, leaving Batman in Labor hands likely for many elections to come, given the popularity of candidate Ged Kearney.

Many have commented that the results show that minor parties are on the wane, or at least, have failed to shift from being purely a protest voice to that of a genuine alternative force in Parliament.

Former Greens leader Bob Brown was fond of saying the party wanted to “replace the bastards”, and current party leader Richard Di Natale has indicated he wants to move beyond minor party status.

But there is a big difference between holding the government of the day to account in the Senate or Legislative Council where horse-trading can alter proposed legislation, and suddenly being in a position to help form government.

Xenophon’s failure to secure much support come polling day has been widely attributed to the scrutiny that followed him when polls showed he had a numerical chance of successfully replacing the bastards and forming government in his own right.

With this came important questions — what would a Xenophon budget look like?

How about a health policy? Naturally, the whole thing fell apart like a cheaply knit jumper.

But it’s incorrect to suggest the result spells the end of minor-partydom. His presence still ensured the major parties polled a record low vote and had their campaigns thrown into disarray as they were diverted from fighting each other.

But most voters still have an ideological alignment to one major party or the other, and generally these parties are predictable — voters know what they are going to get. The Westminster system, Australia’s compulsory voting, and the preferential voting system also favour the duopoly, but this shows scant sign of stopping the little guy from having a crack.

And if there was ever any doubt about the power that the minor party or candidate still holds, look no further than this week’s wrangling with the Senate over the Government’s company tax cuts.

With the Government needing the support of nine of 11 crossbench senators, it has had to negotiate with a ragtag bunch of individuals each with their own ideological and personality quirks.

Having secured the support for the tax package from free marketeers David Leyonhjelm and Cory Bernardi and minor party defectors Steve Martin (who replaced Jacqui Lambie) and Fraser Anning (former One Nation), leader of the Government in the Senate Mathias Cormann has been working overtime to win over the remaining five votes needed.

In a boost for the coalition yesterday, One Nation was poised to support the Bill in exchange for funding for an apprenticeship pilot program targeting 1000 young Australians. This was despite Hanson and WA senator Peter Georgiou just a few weeks ago swearing black and blue that they wouldn’t back the reform package. That’s the thing with minor parties, their wild unpredictability always keeps things interesting.

The “human headline” Hinch has also been wavering, and told the Government he wanted evidence tax cuts would lead to wage rises. He then demanded that the big four banks be excluded from the tax relief package.

Hinch polled about 200,000 votes in the Senate at the last election — about 2 per cent of the national total, yet he holds the fate of the entire country’s tax settings for a generation in his hands.

Like Xenophon before him with his no-pokies single-issue focus, Hinch was elected on a “justice” agenda mainly targeting paedophiles in the community, so no one had any idea much what his position was on corporate tax when he was elected. Probably no one asked. It remains to be seen what gets him over the line — ambassador to the Loire Valley, perhaps?

And in a sign of the difficult path the Government has to navigate, Senator Leyonhjelm was quick to respond to Hinch’s demands by saying if the banks were exempted from the corporate tax cut, he would switch his vote.

Talk about herding cats.

So while the little guy might not have met major expectations in recent days, there’s no doubt the rogue independent and the irritating minor party are here to stay: a thorn in the side of government for years to come.”

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