2016: Not Such a Good Year (Part 5: The Election to Get Rid of the Pesky Cross-bench)

Australian election Yes, it was also an election year. It was a perfectly orderly festival of democracy in which people got who they voted for with little corruption and a retreat from the two party duopoly to spice things up a bit.  I do not mean by including a report of the election to suggest that it was particularly indicative of not such a good year.

Prime Minister Turnbull figured that Australians were rejoicing so authentically in the fact that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian that he might as well scoop up as much of the love as was possible and convert it into power. So he called a double-dissolution election and changed how we vote in the Senate so as to make it harder for micro-parties to get elected. He told the land that what its people needed was a strong majority government, to rid itself of what he characterised as the chaos of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years of minority government.

The Labor party, the Greens and independents almost pulled off a 2016esque underdogs’ upset, a bit like how Pakistan came within 40 runs of achieving the greatest second innings run chase in test history at the first test at the Gabba. (Who knows what might have happened but for Steve Smith’s freak run out to take the 10th Pakistani wicket?) The Coalition’s 21 seat majority was reduced to a 1 seat majority, but Treasurer Morrison, who was so irritating on election night in his unshakeable, smug confidence that the Coalition would be returned to government in his own right was, to give him his due, right. The Prime Minister gave a miserable victory speech about which no one at all enthused.

In a double dissolution election, you only need half the votes you normally do to find yourself called to the Senate (though in this election the 3 least successful elected senators in each state will serve only three year terms). And more than a third of voters gave their first preference in the Senate to a party other than the Coalition and the Labor Party. There was accordingly a more than usually interesting haul of senators. Ironically, there are more Greens and cross-benchers than ever before. Following the election the government needed the vote of at least one senator from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party to pass any legislation opposed by both Labor and The Greens. That Party wants a Royal Commission into Islam, a Royal Commission into climate science, as well as the scrapping of the renewable energy target.

Jackie Lambie is back, her association with Clive Palmer now a distant memory. She is conservative on national security, in love with the armed forces, and aligned with the Greens on economic issues. Weird. Her son was convicted of counterfeiting bank notes and, according to her, he has been an ice addict.  As ‘Ice Wars‘ on ABC is revealing to us, the scourge of crystal meth is a bad problem in Australia and it cannot be a bad thing for the parliament to have a member with such direct experience of it.

Deryn Hinch is a Melbourne shock-jock turned senator who wants a national public register of convicted paedophiles, a cause he has been to jail for. He said his vote for himself was the first time he had voted. He and Pauline Hanson have both been sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

Also on the list of senator convicts was Rod Culleton, one of four brand new One Nation senators elected (along with Qld’s Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, and NSW’s Brian Burston). He and his wife and his brother in law all put their hat in the ring to be senators for Western Australia, but he got the gong. A bank foreclosed on his farm, turning him into a bank-hating farmer-loving renegade. (From his maiden speech: ‘It is clear that our governments, through the UN, are supporting a world government that will strip sovereignty, and ensure international—not national—ownership of farms by transnational agribusiness corporations, branded TNCs, and global investor partnerships.’ Given the impudence with which the federal government has mocked the UN’s impotence in relation to serial serious abuses of human rights on Manus Island and Nauru, this is a strident claim.)

Culleton is associated with companies in liquidation. He was declared bankrupt in a hearing in which he represented himself and reminded the judge, whom he addressed as ‘mate’ that he was a senator. Justice Barker retorted ‘I don’t care if you’re a senator or a janitor. Everyone is equal before the law.’ Senator Culleton’s defence included a particularly classy denial of service of the bankruptcy notice. A man who said he was a supporter was ordered out of court after announcing that some judges are paedophiles. Two former associates turned arch-enemies were taken from the Court in the back of a paddy wagon, loudly complaining of police corruption. Then Senator Culleton left One Nation, becoming an independent, accusing Senator Hanson of un-Australian behavior, which must have come as something of a shock to her. Senator Hanson simply noted he was a pain in the arse which was regarded by her supporters as a pithy despatch of Senator Culleton’s allegation.  The High Court has since decided that he was ineligible, as a convicted thief, to stand for office and his election was a nullity.  The true winner of the seat has not yet been identified.

The most extraordinary thing about the 2016 election was the election of a completely out there conspiracy theorist, Malcolm Roberts, on the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party ticket. He advocates an Ozxit from the ‘unelected swill’ (rich coming from a senator, Paul Keating might say) of the UN. Roberts’s childhood (during which he constructed a miniature coal mine with his coal enthusing father) was spent in India. Senator Roberts spent many years as a prominent member of the inaptly named Galileo Movement, Australia’s chief climate change denialist movement (the radicalised Sydney shock jock Alan Jones is a patron). He has in the past said that the most unlikely people are engaged in a conspiracy to hide evidence of the absence of anthropogenic climate change: the Bank of England, NASA, Jewish bankers. Sam Vincent’s profile in The Monthly made these observations:

‘Two years earlier, “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul” sent an affidavit to Prime Minister Julia Gillard – or in his words, “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” – demanding personal exemption from the carbon tax and compensation of up to $280,000 if she didn’t provide him with disclosure on 28 points, including evidence that “the Commonwealth of Australia CIK# 000805157 is not a corporation registered on the United States of America securities exchange”.

These idiosyncrasies of view and formatting are consistent with the sovereign citizen movement, whose members aspire to exist outside both the social contract and legal framework, and use colons and hyphens to evade government enslavement, which they claim is done through grammar.’

Oddly for a One Nation man, he said this in his maiden speech:

‘Growing up, my parents taught me to respect all cultures and religions. I lived with people of all faiths—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians. Australia has developed a society where people of all faiths are free to get along. In particular, we must maintain our well-developed standards on the treatment of women and girls, and children in general, and the equal advancement of people from all ancestries and all colours of skin. We should welcome anyone of any background who wants to live in peace.’

Malcolm Roberts must surely be the most unsuitable man ever elected to parliament in Australia.  If not, me must surely be the weirdest.

Senator Hanson, back after twenty years, successful after 9 consecutive unsuccessful election tilts, declared in her maiden speech that Australia is ‘predominantly a Christian country’ which is a bit weird since there are hardly any religious Anglo-Australians. Though it is true that 61% of people identified as Christian in 2014, compared with 7% of people who identified as being of all the other faiths combined, it is telling that 75% of marriages were conducted by civil celebrants and we have one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the world, mainly made up of over-50s. The results of the 2016 census will be interesting. It would be more accurate to say that Australia is a democratic capitalist notionally freedom-respecting country, traditionally having western values.

Then Senator Hanson said Australia is in danger of being swamped by Muslims. People who identified as Muslims in the 2011 census numbered about 475,000 about half of whom are estimated to be non-practising cultural Muslims, about 2% of the population. Hinduism is growing more rapidly, and there are more Buddhists than Muslims in Australia.

Senator Hanson also railed against the Family Court without proposing any changes. Instead, she said:

‘I ask all parents: is it worth the pain and anguish to deny your child the love they so deserve from both parents? They are only children for such a short time and all children need both parents. Please put your differences aside, make your peace and come to agreements outside of law courts.’

Senator Hanson, who was once a member of the Liberal Party, won her seat on first preference votes. Four percent of voters voted for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in the Senate, but almost one in ten Queensland votes in the Senate were for her party. One in five votes in two Queensland lower house seats were for the party. But fewer than 2 in every hundred votes in Victoria for the Senate were for Senator Hanson’s party. She even got invited to President Trump’s inauguration, along with the radicalised Queensland Pentecostal, Lyle Shelton.  (Baptists and Pentecostals from whom Mr Shelton’s ‘Australian Christian Lobby’ draws its supporters represent about 2.5% of the population, incidentally.)

I was astonished to learn that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party’s media relations woman, Seraya Beric, is a classically trained professional violinist. She was thanked by both Ms Hanson and Mr Roberts in their maiden speeches. Granted, the love affair didn’t last, but Ms Beric’s Linkedin profile (assuming I have not mixed up two Queensland violinists with the same name) mentions nothing of Pauline Hanson and lists the following causes she cares about: Animal Welfare, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights and Social Action, Economic Empowerment, Environment, Health, Politics, Poverty Alleviation and Science and Technology. Kind of almost sounds Green, don’t you think?

Senator Hanson’s other key advisor was James Ashby, the bloke who accused the Liberal defector turned Speaker, Peter Slipper, of sexual harassment. Rares J gave Mr Slipper summary judgment in Ashby v Commonwealth of Australia (No 4) [2012] FCA 1411 in one of the more remarkable judgments of recent times, finding that Mr Ashby’s claim was an abuse of process designed principally to inflict “significant public, reputational and political damage”. By a majority, the Full Court of the Federal Court overturned Rares J’s decision, but denied his lawyer, whom the Full Court found Rares J had criticized inappropriately, leave to appeal: Ashby v Slipper [2014] FCAFC 15. Mr Ashby pulled out of the retrial before it started and told the viewers of ’60 Minutes’ that the Liberals’ Christopher Pyne offered him a job in state politics and to pay for legal representation if he made sexual assault allegations against Mr Slipper.

Then there is Bob Day, a former member of the Institute of Public Affairs, and the HR Nicholls Society. He was unexpectedly re-elected to the Senate on Liberal preferences as a Family First candidate. He did not believe in anthropogenic climate change and was passionately opposed to same sex marriage. His building empire went into liquidation and he resigned from parliament, saying his position as a senator was untenable, something of a contrast to Mr Culleton’s position. There is a doubt whether he was validly elected too, because of an alleged indirect interest in an Adelaide building leased to the Commonwealth which breached a rule about politicians. The High Court is looking at that.

Nhill-born David Leyonhjelm was going to vote with Bob Day on economic issues. His party is the Liberal Democratic Party. His thing is a hatred of unnecessary laws and of big government. He has a law degree and an MBA as well as a degree in vet science. He is a sports shooting libertarian free speech warrior with a hatred of political correctness. He is reasonably consistent in his opposition to unnecessary laws. So he supports same sex marriage, assisted suicide, and tobacco smoking and dope smoking. He has limits though. He does not believe in the freedom not to inoculate your children: ‘It’s bad enough that people continue to bring wave upon wave [of] these little blighters into the world. The least they can do is immunise their bundles of dribble and sputum, so they don’t make the rest of us sick.’ His party’s climate change position is that ‘Should the evidence become compelling that global warming is due to human activity, that such global warming is likely to have significantly negative consequences for human existence, and that changes in human activity could realistically reverse those consequences, the LDP would favour market-based options.’

Nick Xenophon, who will not be turning up in a parliamentary expenses scandal any time soon, was re-elected and added two other senators to his team: his campaign manager Stirling Griff, a former banker and retail trader, and Skye Kakoschke-Moore who grew up in Oman, has travelled extensively in the Middle East and once worked for the Australian Refugee Association. Ms Kakoschke-Moore (no relation of Oskar Kokoschka presumably: different spelling) is strongly in favour of at least equal numbers of women as men on boards. A mixed bag.

There are even cross benchers for the Coalition, Labor and The Greens to contend with in the House of Representatives: first, Bob Katter, second, the Nick Xenophon Team’s Rebekha Sharkie. She is into domestic violence victims, youth employment and pensioner support, and is a refugee from an increasingly right wing liberal party. Third, indepdendent Cathy McGowan in Indi in the High Country around Wangarratta and Beechworth (who again beat the locally despised Liberal, Sophie Mirabella). Fourth, Andrew Wilkie, the former intelligence officer and anti-Iraq war whistleblower.

The impressive Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal person to join the NSW parliament became the first Aboriginal woman in the House of Representatives, winning a seat in Sydney’s southern suburbs for the Labor Party. She gave her maiden speech draped in a possum cloak and incorporated a live song by a fellow Wiradjuri (not Warandjuri) woman singing from the gallery. I recommend this fascinating interview with her by the ABC’s Richard Fidler.

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