The High Court has ruled that Steve Martin, from the Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN), is eligible to enter the Senate, dismissing the argument that his mayoral position disqualified him under the Constitution’s Section 44.
After the decision Martin quickly rejected any suggestion he might stand aside to allow Lambie to return to the Senate, despite her clear wish that he do so.
Lambie resigned from parliament last year because she had dual citizenship, inherited via a Scottish father.
Martin said he was excited at the case’s outcome and the prospect of taking up the opportunity to work for Tasmania in the Senate.
Asked whether he might defect to become an independent, as did a One Nation replacement senator, Fraser Anning, Martin said he was entering the Senate as a JLN candidate and there were still a few steps to be gone through. He would not be drawn on anything “hypothetical”.
The issue in the case of Martin, who was number two on the JLN ticket at the election, was whether, as mayor of Devonport, he held an office of profit under the crown.
Former One Nation candidate Kate McCulloch maintained that he did. The full bench decision, which was unanimous, has now clarified the constitutional position in relation to local councillors generally.
Lambie said at the weekend: “My heart is set on coming back to the Senate”.
Martin was “entitled to that second seat. If he wants to run through with it, well he’s entitled to do that. Unfortunately I broke the rules, whether it was intentional or not, and I have to sit on the sidelines and pay the price for that,” she told Sky.
“I’ll be brutally honest, if it was me in his position I would be extremely loyal and I would step down. That’s what I would do, but that is not up to me – that is up to him.”
Next week the court will hear the case concerning the successor to former Nick Xenophon Team senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore, who also resigned in the dual citizenship crisis.
Kakoschke-Moore is arguing the vacancy should not go to the next candidate on the ticket, Tim Storer, who, after a falling out with the party, is no longer a member of it. She maintains the seat should go back to her; she has now freed herself of her British citizenship.
The court also has before it the status of ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher, who did not receive confirmation of her renunciation of British citizenship until after her nomination.
Meanwhile, the Coalition is awaiting the court’s judgment in the case of David Gillespie, an assistant minister.
At issue there is another part of Section 44, which prohibits anyone being chosen for, or sitting in, parliament if they hold a pecuniary interest in an agreement with the Commonwealth.
A tenant in a Port Macquarie shopping centre owned by Gillespie’s family company has an Australia Post franchise. Australia Post is a government business.
With all election-day votes counted, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by a 49.9-48.4 margin to win the Alabama Senate byelection today. Once Jones is seated, Republicans will hold only a 51-49 Senate majority, down from their current 52-48.
Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by a 62-34 margin in Alabama at the 2016 Presidential election, so in Australian terms, this result is a swing to the Democrats of 14.6%.
The massive swing was partly due to Moore’s faults. His extreme right-wing views probably made him a liability even in a state as conservative as Alabama. In November, I wrote that Moore’s alleged sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl, when he was 32, could damage him. Similar allegations against Moore were made by other women.
While Moore was a bad candidate, Trump and national Republicans can also be blamed for this result. According to exit polls, Trump’s approval with the Alabama electorate was split 48% approve, 48% disapprove, a large drop from his 2016 margin.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregate, Trump’s national ratings are 37% approve, 57% disapprove, for a net of -20. Trump’s ratings have recently slipped back to near-record lows, probably as a result of the unpopular Republican tax plan.
This tax plan is unlikely to be derailed by Jones’ win. Different versions have already passed the House and Senate, and Republicans still have some time before Jones is seated to pass the same version through both chambers of Congress. The current Senate version was passed 51-49. Even if Jones is seated, there would be a 50-50 tie, which would be broken by Vice-President Mike Pence.
The last Democrat to win an Alabama Senate contest was Richard Shelby in 1992, and he became a Republican in 1994. Southern Democrats used to easily win Alabama and other conservative southern states, but these Democrats were nicknamed “Dixiecrats”, and were definitely not left-wing. Doug Jones may be the first genuinely left-wing Senator from Alabama.
The Alabama result will be a massive morale boost for Democrats, as many will think that if Democrats can win Alabama, they can win anywhere. This should allow Democrats to recruit strong candidates for the 2018 midterm elections.
According to the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate, Democrats lead in the race for Congress by 47.2-37.5. If Democrats win the national popular vote by this margin next November, they should easily gain control of the House.
The Alabama result will make it more difficult for Republicans to pass legislation and get conservative judges approved. It also puts the Senate in play in November 2018, as Jones will not be up for election until 2020. Democrats now need to gain two seats in 2018 to take control, rather than three.
One-third of the Senate is up for election every two years, and Democrats won the 33 Senate seats up next year by a 25-8 margin in 2012. Republicans will only be defending eight seats, while Democrats defend 25. In these circumstances, two Senate seats are far easier to gain than three.
Most Alabama polls gave Moore a three-to-seven-point lead over Jones, with one at a nine-point Moore lead. The Monmouth and Washington Post polls (respectively tied and Jones by three) were the most accurate. Ironically, the Fox News poll was the most pro-Jones, giving him a ten-point lead.
Bennelong Newspoll 50-50
The Bennelong byelection will be held on Saturday, December 16. A Bennelong Newspoll, conducted December 9-10 from a sample of 529, had a 50-50 tie, a ten-point swing to Labor from the 2016 election. Primary votes were 39% Liberal, 39% Labor, 9% Greens, 7% for Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives and 2% Christian Democrats.
Newspoll is assuming that Conservative and Christian Democrat preferences are as favourable to the Liberals as Greens preferences are for Labor.
At the start of the campaign, more than three weeks ago, Galaxy had a 50-50 tie, while ReachTEL gave the Liberals a 53-47 lead. This Newspoll is the first publicly released Bennelong poll since then, though The Australian reported last week that internal Liberal polling had them leading 54-46.
In past elections, individual seat polls have been inaccurate. There is some chance of a Labor win in Bennelong, but there is also some chance of a thumping Liberal win.
Newspoll asked about Labor candidate Kristina Keneally’s performance when she was NSW premier. 19% thought she was one of the worst premiers, 15% below average, 26% average, 23% better than average, and 10% one of the best. The Liberals have attacked Keneally on her record as premier, but this does not appear to have worked.
The national polls below indicate the media frenzy over Sam Dastyari has had little impact on voting intentions. Often issues that excite partisan voters have little resonance with the general public.
Essential 54-46 to federal Labor
The Coalition gained a point in this week’s Essential, but this was due to rounding. Labor led 54-46, from primary votes of 38% Labor, 35% Coalition, 10% Greens, 7% One Nation and 2% Nick Xenophon Team. Essential uses a two-week sample of about 1,800 for voting intentions. Additional questions use one week’s sample.
Despite Labor’s strong lead in voting intentions, Turnbull’s net approval improved from -12 in November to -3. Shorten’s net approval also improved from -13 to -9.
71% thought it is important that sexual harassment claims in the film and TV industry are exposed, while just 17% thought exposing these claims could unfairly harm reputations. 55% thought the current media attention on sexual harassment would bring about lasting change in the Australian workplace, while 30% thought it would soon be forgotten.
Considering energy policy, 37% said costs should be prioritised (up nine since June), 18% thought reliability should be prioritised (down three) and 15% carbon emissions (down four).
This week’s YouGov, conducted December 7-10 from a sample of 1,032, had primary votes of 35% Labor (up 3 since last fortnight), 34% Coalition (up 2), 11% Greens (up 1) and 8% One Nation (down 3).
Although this poll would be about 54-46 to Labor by 2016 election preferences, YouGov’s respondent allocated preferences are tied 50-50, a three-point gain for the Coalition.
By 40-39, voters thought Turnbull should stand down as prime minister and let someone else take over, rather than remain prime minister. 28% said Turnbull’s decision to go ahead with the banking royal commission gave them a more positive view of him, 15% more negative and 52% said it made no difference.
39% expected Labor to win the next federal election, 24% the Coalition, and 14% expected a hung parliament.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari has succumbed to intense pressure to quit the Senate in the face of continued revelations that he had promoted Chinese interests.
Dastyari told a brief news conference, at which he took no questions, he had decided “the best service I can render to the federal parliamentary Labor Party is to not return to the Senate in 2018”.
He said his ongoing presence would detract from “the pursuit of Labor’s mission” and he wanted to spare the party “any further distraction”.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that in 2015 Dastyari tried to dissuade Labor’s then shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek from meeting a pro-democracy advocate during her trip to Hong Kong.
This followed an earlier revelation that Dastyari had tipped off his Chinese businessman benefactor, Huang Xiangmo – who is of interest to Australian security authorities – that his phone was likely tapped.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that following their discussions, Dastyari had informed him he was resigning from the Senate. “I told him I thought this was the right decision.”
It is understood that Shorten had been in intensive talks with factional allies to resolve the Dastyari crisis. Labor had no power to force Dastyari out of parliament – and sources said he was reluctant to go.
In his statement, Dastyari strongly defended himself, saying he left parliament “knowing that I’ve always honoured my parliamentary oath”.
He said he had always acted with integrity “and I remain a loyal, patriotic Australian”.
Dastyari has been under sustained pressure to quit the Senate, with this week’s leak of his representations to Plibersek seen as part of the effort from within the ALP to get him out. On Monday two frontbenchers, Linda Burney and Catherine King, made it clear he should consider his position.
Sources said some people in Labor’s right had been concerned about the precedent set by Dastyari having to resign – given that he had not done anything illegal.
The government had maintained a constant attack on Shorten for not forcing Dastyari to leave, casting the issue as a test of Shorten’s leadership.
Dastyari’s resignation comes in the dying days of the Bennelong byelection, which a Newspoll in Tuesday’s Australian shows as being extremely close. The Newspoll has the Labor and Liberal parties on a 50-50 two-party-preferred vote, and each on a 39% primary vote.
The byelection follows the resignation of the Liberals’ John Alexander in the citizenship crisis; he is being challenged by former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally.
Keneally’s name has recently been mentioned as a possible replacement senator for Dastyari if she failed in her bid to win Bennelong.
Bennelong has a significant Chinese community, and the row about Dastyari and also more generally the concern about foreign interference in Australian politics, could have some influence in the byelection, although how those factors will play out there is unclear.
Dastyari entered the Senate in 2013. A former secretary of the NSW Labor Party, he has been a significant figure and numbers man in the NSW right faction. In parliament, he has been active on issues of banking and misconduct in that industry.
He said he would continue to be an active grassroots member of the Labor Party.
Shorten said that Dastyari could be proud of what he had achieved as a senator. “He has sought justice for the victims of banking misconduct, exposed the tax minimisations processes of international giants, pushed for a better deal for younger Australians and promoted an inclusive multicultural nation.”
Joseph Cheng Yu-Shek, the pro-democracy activist that Dastyari unsuccessfully tried to persuade Plibersek not to meet, told the ABC that Chinese authorities “operated a very powerful, very resourceful machinery trying to influence the policies of various foreign countries”.
“This machinery tries to cultivate ties with influential politicians, tries to persuade them to be friends of China, and as friends of China, they should avoid meeting enemies of China,” he said.
“If these situations become effective, the politicians concerned will be rewarded and then they will be pressured to do something even more compromising later,” he said.
But just before he walked into the chamber to be sworn in, Anning flagged he would sit as an independent.
Anning later declared he had not left One Nation – it was Hanson who had kicked him out.
The setback for Hanson comes as One Nation’s vote is apparently surging in the Queensland election. Polling published in The Courier-Mail at the weekend showed strong support for One Nation in various regional and urban fringe seats with a vote of more than 20% in some, although it would not have won any of the seats on the figures.
The Anning defection follows weeks of tension with Hanson and her adviser James Ashby, and a bitter clash at the One Nation party meeting on Monday morning.
Hanson said in a statement that before the High Court decision she had tried to speak with Anning while he was overseas, but her efforts “fell on deaf ears”. She’d had to communicate through his brother Harry instead.
She had indicated to Harry Anning “that given the work Malcolm Roberts had achieved as chair of the banking inquiry and his role in challenging climate change, it would be in the federal party’s and Australia’s best interests” for him to be returned to the Senate.
Anning had made no attempt to contact her or any One Nation executive members after multiple requests to discuss his plans, she claimed – something Anning disputes. “Instead he chose to release scathing media releases demanding I pledge my support to him without even meeting or speaking to him,” she said.
The statement said Anning only spoke with Hanson on Monday morning “but those talks quickly failed when she refused to allow several Anning staff into the party meeting. The staffers had formerly worked for Roberts and she would not have them at the meeting “because of their disloyalty to their former employer and myself.”
Anning then walked out of the meeting.
One Nation senators Brian Burston and Peter Georgiou sought to mediate, but they were told “only minutes before he was sworn into the Senate” that Anning would sit as an independent, Hanson’s statement said.
Anning had a different version. He said he had been verbally attacked in the partyroom. “This was profoundly shocking to me as I had been a friend and supporter of Pauline for over 20 years … the attack was so vitriolic that I was obliged to simply walk out.”
He said Burston and Georgiou had told him Hanson demanded he not employ the staffers – he had said this was unacceptable. He believed these demands were actually coming from Ashby, “who had previously conducted a witch-hunt against anyone he thought supported me, and it was he who had turned Pauline against me”.
At the last minute, Anning’s office asked Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and the Australian Conservatives’ Cory Bernardi to escort him for the swearing in, which his One Nation colleagues had been due to do. Anning said Hanson had told the One Nation senators not to do so.
“The next thing I knew, I saw on the TV that I had supposedly become an independent. This was news to me!
“It seems that without even contacting me, Pauline has unilaterally kicked me out of her party,” he said. “I have to say I’m stunned.” He said it was “simply false” to say he’d left One Nation. “If I’m no longer a One Nation senator, it is because Pauline has expelled me by press release.”
Hanson’s statement said she believed former employees of Roberts contacted Anning several months ago, encouraging him to move to Bernardi’s party if Roberts lost his seat.
She said before Roberts came under the citizenship cloud she had asked Anning to contest the state seat of Gladstone, but he dismissed the request on the grounds he and his wife were moving permanently to the US.
Leyonhjelm said Anning told him on their way into the chamber that he wouldn’t be sitting as a One Nation senator.
He had been aware of the tensions earlier but had been told by a One Nation senator at the weekend that all was well with Anning.
Asked if Anning might join the Liberal Democrats Leyonhjelm said he had not spoken to him about that. Anning would have to be comfortable with the party, he said.
Roberts is running for a seat in the Queensland election.
Senate president Stephen Parry has announced he will resign immediately from parliament after the United Kingdom government advised that he was a British citizen.
Confirming the latest blow to the Turnbull government, Parry said he was quitting now that the court’s Friday ruling had “given absolute clarity to the meaning and application of Section 44(1)” of the constitution.
Parry’s British citizenship is via his late father who came to Australia as a child. He only checked out his situation with British authorities after the court ruling, indicating publicly on Tuesday that he was awaiting information.
Parry’s departure is feeding into the current’s tensions between the Nationals and the Liberals, with New South Wales National John “Wacka” Williams putting up his hand for the position of Senate president.
The post has never been held by a member of the Nationals or its predecessor the Country party, and the Liberals will want to keep it in their own hands.
Liberal frontrunners would include the chief government whip in the Senate, David Bushby, who is from Tasmania, and South Australia’s Liberal David Fawcett, who is deputy government whip in the Senate.
The government puts up a nominee who is then voted on by the Senate. The Liberal candidate is routinely chosen by Liberal senators but there might be pressure this time to include the Nationals in the decision.
Williams, the Nationals whip in the Senate, is a deputy president and so used to occupying the Senate chair. “I’d like to see more discipline in the chamber, especially at question time”, he said on Wednesday.
Williams pointed out he has only 20 months left in Parliament – he will retire at the end of this term. “For 20 months it would be good if the Liberal party supported the National party to do the job”.
The acting parliamentary leader of the Nationals, senator Nigel Scullion said that “Wacka would make a great president for the Senate.”
But Liberal senator Eric Abetz said: “This is a Liberal Party position, it always has been and always will be.”
There was tension between the Coalition partners last week when Malcolm Turnbull made deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop acting prime minister while he is overseas, rather than Scullion.
Parry is set to be replaced as a Tasmanian senator on a countback by Richard Colbeck, a former minister who was next on the Liberal ticket, although the process will have to be formally decided by the High Court.
Calls continue to come for a full audit of the citizenship of parliamentarians, including from Liberals such as Craig Kelly, but this is being resisted by both the government and the opposition.
In his resignation statement Parry appealed to senators not to further burden by too many references an overloaded Senate committee system. “There are only so many hours that a senator can apply to this work. It is important that the fine reputation of our Senate committees continues to be well regarded here and internationally”.
The government has been thrown into a fresh crisis, with Senate President Stephen Parry announcing he may be a dual British citizen as a result of his father having been born in the UK.
Parry’s bombshell comes after Friday’s High Court decision knocked two Nationals ministers, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, out of parliament, triggering a byelection in Joyce’s New England seat.
Attorney-General George Brandis, asked on Sunday whether he could provide an assurance there were no other Coalition MPs sitting in parliament who were foreign citizens, told Sky: “I have absolutely no reason to believe that there are”.
Parry, a senator from Tasmania, is the first Liberal to be caught in the dual citizenship debacle.
He said in a statement issued late on Tuesday that he had examined his situation after Friday’s court decision which gave “absolute clarity” about Section 44 of the Constitution.
Parry did not explain why he did not check his citizenship earlier, notably when Nash announced she had British citizenship via her Scottish father.
Parry has now sought clarification from the UK government. He said if he were found to be a British citizen he would resign from parliament without waiting for the outcome of any referral to the High Court because “I believe the High Court has made it abundantly clear what action is required”.
Parry said his father was born in the UK and moved to Australia as a boy in 1951. “He married my mother in 1960 and I was born that same year in Burnie. I have always regarded my late father as Australian, particularly as he undertook his national service and participated as a member of the Australian Army Reserve and voted in every Australian election since adulthood.”
He said he wrote to the British Home Office on Monday to seek clarity. “This was the first opportunity to do so since the High Court ruling,” he said. The Home Office had sought further details from him on Tuesday, which he had provided, and he was waiting for a response.
“Depending upon the outcome, I may seek further legal advice before reporting back to the Senate.”
Even if Parry quit parliament before a High Court ruling on his eligibility to have been elected, the court would need to clarify his status to determine whether the vacancy would be filled by a countback or a casual vacancy, with the Liberal Party choosing the candidate.
The next candidate on the ticket in a countback would be former Liberal senator Richard Colbeck, who was pushed down the ticket at the 2016 election in a factional power play involving fellow Tasmanian Eric Abetz.
Colbeck, a former minister, scotched any suggestion that if he were elected in a recount he would resign to allow Parry to return. He told The Conversation he was waiting to see what the situation was but if the seat came to him “I’d take it in a heartbeat”. He added that his parents and grandparents were born in Australia.
Abetz said in a statement he was shocked by the Parry news. “Senator Parry has a long and distinguished career of service to the people of Tasmania and Australia. If he is found ineligible, his departure would be a huge loss and I am hopeful that any advice from the United Kingdom will allow him to remain in the Senate.”
Parry, who turned 57 on Tuesday, has been Senate president since July 2014. He was elected at the 2004 election, entering the Senate in 2005. He is a former policeman and a former funeral director.
In his maiden speech he told parliament: “I am a descendant of the First Fleet convicts who arrived on January 26, 1788, onboard the ships the Scarborough and the Prince of Wales.”
Brandis told a news conference on Tuesday that Parry had first informed him of his situation on Monday morning. “Evidently, before the High Court’s decision, it wasn’t something that he’d appreciated may be problematic for him and we still don’t know whether it is problematic until the inquiries, which he has initiated of the UK Home Office, have been completed,” Brandis said. He said Parry expected an answer in the next day or so.
Brandis continued to fend off calls for an audit of all MPs. “If anybody wants to make an allegation that a member of parliament was not duly elected because of Section 44 or for any other issue for that matter, then let them make that allegation.
“But in relation to the government members, and also others including the two Green senators, people have acted honourably, they have come forward as soon as they’ve identified they may have a problem,” he said.
Brandis said the issue of Section 44 of the Constitution, prohibiting dual citizens being elected, needed to be dealt with “one way or another”.
“It may be the issue can be dealt with legislatively without putting the public to a referendum,” he said.
“Where 51% of people either were born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas, it sits oddly with the notion of a multicultural democracy that operation of Section 44 as we now understand from the High Court could potentially disqualify millions of Australians from standing for parliament.”
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said it was “extraordinary that the president of the Senate – who oversaw several High Court referrals – did not reflect on his own eligibility until just days ago”.
“Malcolm Turnbull must tell Australians whether he knew there were doubts over senator Parry’s eligibility,” she said.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale renewed his call for a comprehensive audit of MPs’ citizenship status.
Turnbull, who is in Israel for the Beersheba commemoration, was asked (before the Parry story broke publicly): “Do you ever feel you’ve had enough? You’d just like to – it’s all been too much? You’ve just had enough of the whole political scene?”
He replied: “I have never had more fun in my life”.
Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly has told the ABC’s Lateline there should be a comprehensive audit; he suggested it should be done by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Labor and the trade unions have signalled a willingness to tackle lobbying at some point. However, there are meaningful obstacles to the crossbench’s current plan.
Given its control of the lower house, the Coalition would need to be brought on side for legislation to pass anytime soon. However, citing Australia’s performance on Transparency International’s corruption index, Attorney-General George Brandis is against a federal regulator to police anti-corruption.
Similarly, the Institute of Public Affairs – a Liberal Party ideological ally – rejects the idea because such an agency might abuse its power.
Given the resistance from the Coalition, hope for changes to lobbying laws currently rest with the Senate crossbench and the lower house independents. They are negotiating a unified policy based on Lambie’s proposal.
The policy acknowledges that new lobbying laws need to be legislated; have meaningful enforcement provisions (including the possibility of fines or imprisonment for serious offences; and have an independent regulator to oversee them.
Having an independent regulator is critical. As it stands, when a minister leaves office, their eligibility to work as a lobbyist, and whether they have breached any lobbying regulations, is determined by those who directly work with – or for – the prime minister.
The problems of the revolving door are significant, and growing. It is now commonplace for former ministers to go on to work for companies directly related to their former portfolios – be it on their boards or as lobbyists.
This creates a clear conflict of interest for those ministers when they are in power. Their decisions while in power have the potential to affect the possibility of a job when they leave office. It also allows them far greater access to, and creates conflicts of interest for, the government decision-makers they meet. These are people they often worked with, for, or above.
As a result, Lambie’s plan would ban ministers and senior public servants from taking up lobbying positions within five years of leaving office. This is increased from the current, poorly-enforced 18-month ban.
This move would bring Australia’s prohibition on post-separation employment in line with Canada and the US. Extending the exemption period of post-separation employment, and having an independent regulator to oversee it, would mean the potential for the aforementioned conflicts of interest and advantageous access are reduced.
Beyond the revolving door provisions, Lambie’s plan centres around the ideal of “levelling the playing field” for interest groups. This in turn is based on the problems that arise when some get better access than others.
As such, Lambie’s plan borrows heavily from the overseas examples. It calls for more transparency in lobbying, incentives to join a register of lobbyists, and expanding the definition of “lobbyists” to include those who operate in-house (Australia’s register currently only captures third-party lobbyists).
These goals may be in-part fulfilled by changing the access rules to the highly desired “orange passes” of Parliament House. Under Lambie’s plan, lobbyists are given incentives to join the register for better access to parliamentary offices.
This is an interesting idea, and is focused more on reward than punishment. If coupled with other monitoring conditions, it may improve the transparency of lobbying in Canberra – if only by increasing the likelihood that lobbyists will join the register.
The orange pass concept would be augmented by an expansion of the definition of “lobbyist” to include those who directly represent their organisation, regardless of what it does. This would mean the professional representatives of unions and not-for-profit organisations are treated the same as those from corporations.
At stake: our democracy
Ideally, a representative democracy supports “good lobbying”, where individuals and groups present their ideas, needs and wants on a level playing field. But the status quo in Australia acts to undermine this ideal.
While its benefits are clear, democracy is a fragile system. Its strength is fundamentally reliant on institutional and legal supports, as well as an engaged and informed electorate.
This is where “bad lobbying” presents a significant threat: it uses weak laws and institutions to create an unfair playing field for a few to the detriment of the many, and undermines trust in the system.
In turn, the electorate becomes cynical and disengaged. Democracy collapses when bad lobbying takes hold, and Australia’s bad lobbying has been steadily getting worse – and more pervasive.
In that critical sense, giving Australia’s lobbying laws teeth, and a sizeable regulatory jaw to occasionally brandish them, is a major step in the right direction.
Key crossbencher Nick Xenophon, whose party commands three crucial Senate votes, has announced he will quit federal parliament to run for a state seat in the March South Australian election.
Xenophon’s shock announcement comes ahead of the High Court judging whether he is entitled to sit in parliament, because he is a dual Australian-British citizen by descent. The case will be in court next week, and a quick decision is expected after that.
His departure won’t change the numbers in the upper house. If he loses the court case, he will be replaced by the next candidate on the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) ticket. If he wins, his party will fill the casual vacancy he creates. Either way, the NXT will have three senators. It also has a House of Representative member, Rebekha Sharkie.
But Xenophon’s exit could substantially affect the dynamics in negotiations with the government. He has been a tough, canny but pragmatic bargainer, extracting concessions in return for supporting legislation. The two other senators in the NXT, Stirling Griff and Skye Kakoschke-Moore, only entered parliament at the 2016 election.
Xenophon said he would remain in the Senate until the High Court handed down its decision. He denied his decision to quit had been made because of the threat to his position.
Xenophon, heading a team of state SA-BEST candidates, said he would run in the electorate of Hartley, where he lives. It is a marginal seat held by the Liberals.
He hopes the party can gain the balance of power, but ruled out serving as a minister in a SA government. “Once you do that, you’re in the tent”, and then “you can’t be a fearless watchdog,” he said.
“Unashamedly, we want the balance of power to drive deep and lasting reforms in our state’s political institutions and our processes because there is a lack of transparency and accountability,” he said.
“Having candidates that get elected to hold the balance of power will be a game changer for lasting reforms for the state. It is coming from the political centre, not the extreme right or left.”
He plans to keep a strong hand in with the federal party. “I will, of course, still have a very active and direct role in decisions made at a federal level with NXT,” he said.
“With SA-BEST and NXT holding the balance of power in both the state parliament and the federal Senate, we will work together as a united team under my leadership to drive real change to improve the lives of all South Australians.”
Xenophon started in state politics, elected on an anti-poker-machine platform and serving in state parliament between 1997 and 2007, before winning a Senate seat at the 2007 election.
He said SA politics was “broken, politically bankrupt”.
“I’ve decided that you can’t fix South Australia’s problems in Canberra without first fixing our broken political system back home.” He said since last year’s massive power blackout in SA and its record power prices, “I have concluded they are symptoms of a much bigger and deeper problem”.
SA was at a crossroads, he said. The state had long been falling behind because it had been failed by its leaders, parties and institutions.
Nick Xenophon, the master of the stunt, is about to indulge in one more before he leaves the Senate for a run at ruling the South Australian roost from its crossbench.
After his shock announcement that he’s about to quit federal parliament, Xenophon is off to the US where, early on Monday morning Australian time, he’ll appear with Australian Ugg boot manufacturer Eddie Oygur to protest outside Deckers Outdoor Corporation headquarters in Santa Barbara.
The small business of “Aussie battler” Oygur is being sued for an alleged breach of trademark of the word “Ugg” and the boot’s patent design.
They’ll have with them, according to the pre-publicity screed from Xenophon’s office, “a flock of sheep”. It’s all about pulling wool over consumers’ eyes and fleecing Eddie, you see.
It’s typical Xenophon, an extraordinarily popular and populist politician who specialises in the corny as well as the canny.
Xenophon insists his resignation is not influenced by the cloud over his parliamentary eligibility – the High Court next week considers his, and other MPs’, dual citizenship. If that went badly for him, he’d be out of the Senate anyway.
We can accept his word. Not only do colleagues say he’s been chewing over the possible change for months – although the actual decision is recent – but a source within the government ruefully admits there were hints that weren’t picked up at the time.
Regardless of the court outcome, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) numbers are safe. If he loses the case, Xenophon’s Senate spot would be filled by the next person on the 2016 election ticket – Tim Storer, who runs a trade consultancy. If his position is upheld his party will choose his replacement.
At last year’s election Xenophon went from a one-man band to having a team of three senators and one lower house member. NXT Senate support is needed to pass government legislation that is opposed by Labor and the Greens.
With a government that wants to get measures through, the NXT – like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, with four Senate votes – is in an enormously powerful position. The difference between Xenophon and Hanson is that he usually extracts a price.
He’s a tough dealmaker, who demands concessions in return for his crucial numbers.
Government negotiators sometimes can’t quite believe what they are having to give him. Most recently he received a package worth more than A$60 million for backing the media reform bill.
Earlier, as part of a deal to pass company tax cuts, he secured a one-off payment to help with high power prices for people on aged and disability pensions or the parenting payment, costing the budget some $260 million.
Leading his SA-BEST party for the March election, Xenophon wants to extend that power to state politics – where he started, elected in 1997 on an anti-pokies crusade.
“With SA-BEST and NXT holding the balance of power in both the state parliament and the federal Senate, we will work together as a united team under my leadership to drive real change to improve the lives of all South Australians,” he said in his statement announcing his resignation, which will wait until after the High Court decision.
All the signs are SA-BEST will do well, harvesting people’s discontent with the major parties. Xenophon himself will contest the marginal Liberal seat of Hartley, where he lives.
His personal entry into the SA contest will give much more heft to SA-BEST – already with a strong vote in private polls – and strike more alarm into both Liberals and Labor. He is keeping his counsel on which side he would support in a hung parliament, so maximising uncertainty. The party will not issue preferences.
ABC analyst Antony Green predicts Xenophon’s party “will poll well enough to finish first or second in enough seats to make it very unlikely either side can win a majority in its own right”.
There will be a dozen electorates in which SA-BEST will be very competitive, according to Green. He says Xenophon’s entry will be better for the Labor Party than the Liberal Party, because “he’ll be more of a challenge in Liberal seats”.
Xenophon’s departure leaves his Canberra team with considerable uncertainty. While its numbers are preserved, it has no experienced person to step into Xenophon’s shoes.
And from what Xenophon said on Friday, he wants to keep his own feet in those shoes a good deal. “I will still be heavily involved in federal decisions,” he said. “I won’t be micromanaging but I will have a good idea of what is going on and I will be part of key decisions, particularly insofar as they affect South Australia.”
That might sound all right in theory. In practice it would be complicated, especially when there is complex legislation and difficult negotiations.
Even over the last year, there have been a few suggestions of differences between Xenophon and members of his team. The more time passes, the greater the chance of Xenophon losing touch with the federal nitty-gritty and the federal team resenting input from afar.
The leadership within parliament would have to go to one of the two other current senators: Stirling Griff (most likely) or Skye Kakoschke-Moore.
There is some uncertainty about whether Xenophon would remain overall leader of the party, as well as the state leader. His comment, quoted above, referring to “under my leadership”, suggests he would. And Griff says “we still consider him the leader of the federal party” as well as of the state party.
Immediate future arrangements will be discussed when the NXT meets on parliament’s resumption the week after next.
The longer-term questions will remain. Among them will be the name of the party for the next federal election, and whether Xenophon – even if he stays overlord of the federal party – can retain as much of a national profile when his focus becomes South Australian politics.
The federal government is set on Thursday to secure Senate support for a major deregulation of Australia’s media rules, clearing the way for a sweeping shake-up of the industry.
It will be the biggest overhaul since Paul Keating’s 1987 changes.
The government on Wednesday finally clinched a deal with the crossbench Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), which secured A$60.4 million for a “regional and small publishers’ jobs and innovation package”.
Under the government’s new rules, a company will be able to have TV, radio and print outlets in the same market – at present it is limited to two out of the three.
Commercial media groups have been strongly in favour of the change, which is set to spark a flurry of mergers and acquisitions.
In an earlier deal, the government some weeks ago locked in the support of Pauline Hanson by agreeing to measures that would potentially clip the wings of the ABC.
It promised an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are operating on a “level playing field” with their commercial competitors, and to introduce legislation this year to insert the words “fair” and “balanced” in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information. But the NXT has said it will not support this legislation, which would mean it would fail.
The media changes will also abolish the 75% reach rule, under which TV licence holders cannot reach more than 75% of the Australian population.
The future of the financially embattled Channel 10 has been in play in anticipation of the scrapping of the two-out-of-three rule.
News Corp’s Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon, who owns the Win regional television network, were favourites to acquire Channel 10. The aim was to put onto Ten content and staff from News Corp’s pay TV station Sky News.
But the bid required the new rules to be passed, and the legislation had been delayed by the prolonged haggling with the crossbench. This allowed the American giant CBS to get in ahead of them. Murdoch and Gordon are now contesting the sale in court.
In Wednesday’s Senate debate, Labor senator Helen Polley said the government was “hellbent on destroying media diversity in this country”.
She accused Nick Xenophon of a “dirty deal”, and said he had given the green light to the Hanson-Turnbull plan to undermine the ABC.
One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts said the ABC was running “rampant and out of control”.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that while there was a need to ensure that Australians had access to a diverse range of media, the legislation had the potential for further concentration. “The ABC looks like it’s going to be screwed over,” he said.
His Greens colleague Sarah Hanson-Young said the competitive neutrality review was “to hobble the ABC”. She said Hanson had a “personal vendetta” against the ABC because of stories she didn’t like. “Suck it up, sunshine,” she said.
In an angry outburst, crossbencher Jacqui Lambie lashed the government as “a disgusting bunch of individuals”, saying their going after the public broadcaster was “a disgrace”.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said that in 1988 the only platforms were print, radio and TV. Now “the internet is all-pervasive” – people “have an unprecedented range of options”.
The greatest threat to diversity would be the failure of a significant media organisation, Fifield said.
The new rules would allow media organisations to have a “broader range of dance partners”. The changes had the support of the entire media industry, which was “unprecedented” and reflected the challenges faced by the Australian media, he said. The government package would provide “a shot in the arm” for the industry.
The deal for the NXT, funded over three years, includes a $50 million one-off regional and small publishers innovation fund.
“The grants will be able to be used by publishers for initiatives that support the continuation, development, growth and innovation of Australian civic journalism, including initiatives that explore and expand the journalism funding model,” the NXT said.
Australian publishers with an annual revenue turnover of between $300,000 and $30 million would be eligible for grants.
The package also includes support for 200 cadetships, under a regional and small publishers program. Most of these will go to regional areas.
As well, the government has agreed to direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to conduct an inquiry into the impact of the new digital environment on media.
Nick Xenophon said the result of his negotiations were a good outcome for diversity and journalist jobs. “We support the legislation as necessary reforms that effect the very large changes,” he said.
** Post script **
The Senate on Thursday passed the bill. It now has to return to the House of Representatives when Parliament resumes in a month, before becoming law.