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Minor parties and Independents in the Senate: a guide

*Edited 3 August to update final Senate results*

Now the final votes have been counted, the make-up of the Senate in the 45th Australian Parliament is clear.

Today the last two seats in doubt were confirmed, another seat in Queensland to One Nation and the return of Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm in NSW.

Coalition 30
Labor 26
Greens 9
The Nick Xenophon Team 3
One Nation 4
Family First 1
The Jacqui Lambie Network 1
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party 1                                                                                                   Liberal Democrats 1

This means that the Government will require 36 votes to pass any piece of legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens.  At a minimum this will involve gaining support from two different sources and could involve dealing with Senators with five distinct political affiliations.

Typically this will require an often protracted and multi-lateral negotiation process where the original purpose of the legislation can often get lost in the resulting trade-offs and deal making.

As was evident in the Gillard era, this situation leads to a government that is continually distracted by the minutiae of parliamentary negotiations, is overly influenced by the sectional interests of individual cross-benchers and as a consequence finds it difficult to progress any clear agenda.

For interest groups seeking to influence the political agenda it will be crucial to understand the political dynamics of the new parliament and, in particular, to engage with the Senators whose votes both the Government and Opposition will be trying to win.

This can be tough but it also creates opportunities. While most parliamentarians are committed to their jobs and genuinely want to do the best for their constituencies, independents and minor parties lack the resources of the major parties for policy development and research.

They therefore often rely more heavily on interest groups to educate and inform them about the policy issues they are dealing with in parliament. This creates scope for stakeholder groups to have greater influence over the legislative process, via direct lobbying, participation in Senate Inquiries and through other means, such as the media.

The first step to effectively working with and influencing the cross-bench in the next parliament is to understand their policy platforms and political agenda.

As an initial guide, Croakey has compiled the following summary of the health policies of the minor parties and independents in the Senate, together with some examples (where applicable) of previous activities in the health sector.

The Greens

The Greens have a comprehensive health policy and a strong history of support for public health, Medicare and prevention. Their parliamentary leader, Richard di Natale, is a former GP. The Greens have been active campaigners both within and outside of parliament for a strong public health system and opposed Coalition policies to introduce co-payments for GP services.

Key current areas of focus for the Greens in health include: primary health care reform; a tax on sugary drinks; reform of the mental health system; and closing the gap between the health of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The Greens will be active in all areas of health policy in the new parliament and with 9 Senators they have the resources to be effective in Senate Inquiries and other committee work. While likely to vote with Labor on many issues, they will be keen to differentiate themselves wherever possible on issues important to their constituency.

The Nick Xenophon Team

Nick Xenophon will lead a team of three Senators and has been a vocal advocate on selected health issues. While his team has not developed an overall health policy, he has run campaigns on a number of health-related issues such as gambling, food labelling and climate change.

In the previous parliament, Senator Xenophon focussed on advocating for consumers in his constituency harmed through the provision of health care and has been particularly active in Senate Inquiries.

Senator Xenophon was originally elected to the South Australian parliament on a ‘no pokies’ ticket and has a strong history of campaigning against the gambling and alcohol industries.

He has worked hard to cultivate an image as a passionate and vocal consumer advocate against the interests of ‘big business’, in particular for his South Australian constituents. This has led to him advocating for the interests of constituents who have experienced adverse effects from medical devices.

Following on from this, Senator Xenophon has also advocated on related issues, such as medical device regulation and private health insurance. He stated before the election that if re-elected he would call for a Senate Inquiry into prostheses pricing in the private sector. It can be expected that he will continue to pursue these issues in the next parliament.

One Nation

One Nation has not had a high profile on health issues either during this election campaign or in previous parliaments.

One Nation have released three health policies: one on the drug ice; one on medical cannabis; and one on taking nursing training out of universities and giving it back to hospitals.  This policy states:

“In years gone by, nurses were trained on the floors of our Australian hospitals. But that changed, with the thought of progress, and hope of a better outcome, so the teaching of the nursing profession was taken to the computer and classrooms. Now we have nurses who find it difficult to advance from the computer and classroom to the reality of dealing with sick people, and the full scope and reality of what the profession entails even though some of their training does include work experience”

The Jacqui Lambie Network

Senate Lambie does not have an official health policy and approaches issues from the perspective of her (largely rural) Tasmanian constituency. For this reason, she has been most active on cost and access issues which directly affect consumers, such as increases in co-payments.

She argued strongly in Federal Parliament against the Coalition’s attempts to introduce co-payments to both GP and diagnostic health services.

For example, in February this year she stated:

“I note that respected Tasmanian health professionals like scientist Richard Hanlon have warned that the effect on patients will be quite significant because it will discourage patients from going to their doctors, patients may pay up to a $30 co-payment and it has the potential to stop patients from testing for chronic diseases like diabetes and undertaking pap smears for women’s cancers.

It will remove a 10-year focus on primary health care so that hospitals in the future will become inundated, and cancers and diabetes will not be seen until it is too late.”

She has also opposed the extension of the GST to include fresh food and supported an extension of the veterans’ gold card to more ex-service men and women.

The Derryn Hinch Justice Party

Derryn Hinch is a high profile media personality and journalist who has advocated for a number of key social issues during his career, including sexual abuse, domestic violence and the justice system, in particular parole.

He has not articulated a comprehensive health policy but has stated his support for voluntary euthanasia.  His position on health issues, such as the future of Medicare, the role of private health insurance, the introduction of co-payments for GP and other services, is not clear.

Family First

Family First does not have any specific health policies on its website, which focusses mainly on “family” issues and taxation.  In the previous parliament he has advocated for conservative positions on health-related issues such as sex education in schools, euthanasia and same sex marriage.

He has also opposed increases in tobacco taxes, questioned the science of climate change and opposed the establishment of wind turbines.

Liberal Democrats

David Leyonhjelm has been returned as the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.  Like the other indpendents he does not have an over-arching health policy but deals with issues on a case-by-case basis within the broad framework of his ‘small government/individual liberty’ philosophy.   The health-related issues he has been most vocal on include voluntary euthanasia, tobacco taxation and other public health measures and wind turbines.

In the last parliament he chaired a senate inquiry into personal choice and community impacts which examined a number of health-related measures, such as the regulation of bicycle helmets and the provision of alcohol.

In the context of that inquiry he criticised public health lobbyists as having “a conceited arrogance in the face of evidence from overseas; a desire to make laws “for the greater good”, and the belief that “appropriate” intellectuals know better than the rest of us.”

He has also argued against the principles underlying many public health measures saying “If we persist in thinking people cannot make simple decisions about how to protect their own head, what games to play, when to drink or what to eat, why then do we think they can do something as complicated as voting, which involves choosing between different political visions?”

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