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Opinion: a messy Senate could be a good thing

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Interior detail of Australia's Federal Parliament building, Canberra. Photo: Edward Dalmulder
Interior detail of Australia’s Federal Parliament building, Canberra. Photo: Edward Dalmulder

There’s an old saying that politics is about forging compromises, building coalitions and making deals.

With the Turnbull government now needing nine of the 11 crossbenchers to pass legislation in the senate if Labor and the Greens block it, the saying has never been truer.

It’s easy to despair about the current situation and wish for a time when Australian politics was much simpler – when the two major parties ruled the roost and minor parties knew their place.

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Over last 40 years, only the Australian Democrats and more recently the Greens have intruded upon the Labor and Liberal/National dominance of our national politics.

Whether the past or present is preferable in terms of Australian politics is a matter of personal opinion.

Some of us want the certitude of a clean sweep of both houses of parliament so a government can get on with the job unimpeded.

Others believe that a more politically balanced Senate provides the sort of checks and balances that can temper a government’s conduct and ensure that it is truly governing for all.

There’s a more recent view that the proliferation of minor parties and figures in the Senate is a good thing which reflects the diversity of opinion within Australian society.

This view is often connected with a cynicism about the major parties and a belief that the average person and their concerns get lost in the influence pedalled by big business, unions, media and government bureaucracies.

While you might not like some or all of the recent arrivals in the Senate, they are likely to force at least some consideration of alternative views and accommodations if things are going to get done.

This is where the compromises, coalitions and deals kick in.

A winner takes all approach to government with our new parliament simply won’t work.

Whether they like it or not, both the government and the opposition will need to work with Senators Lambie, Hinch, Hanson and others to get things done.

The most influential players on the government side will  be those members who are capable of engaging in an ongoing dialogue with the cross benches that is grounded in empathy, understanding and real sense of the common good.

The same goes for the opposition. It’s safe to assume that Bill Shorten and his parliamentary colleagues will be developing close relationships with Senators who come from very different perspectives politically.

Good negotiators find common ground where at first there might appear to be little, and view issues and problems in an expansive rather than limited way.

This is a parliament where the negotiators and not the thugs will have the upper hand.

There’s another way of looking at the new Australian parliament that invites at least some optimism as well.

Most if not practically all people who enter parliament as our representatives do so to make Australia a better place.

In other words, our politicians despite their many flaws act in what they consider is the common good and our interests.

Frequently we feel that their efforts are far from successful and we enjoy complaining about it enthusiastically.

Perhaps it’s just possible that with the messy new parliament about to get underway and our politicians conscious of the growing cynicism of the electorate about their conduct, working with, as opposed to against, each other is the best way to serve not just their own interests, but the public interest as well.

Here’s hoping they see the light.

Tony Farley is the executive director of the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations

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