Last Friday’s news that members of the crossbench will be provided fewer senior staff than the last term, is important to organisations with an eye on the legislative agenda under the Albanese Government.
It’s worth communications professionals watching how the Government’s relationship with the crossbench unfolds. The Government may have chalked up an early strategic win, taking some of the sting out of the crossbench’s tail, or it may have set a course for a tumultuous parliamentary term.
On Friday, the Government informed crossbench MPs that they will be allocated just one senior adviser, down from four under a deal made by the Coalition Government. The Greens are set to also lose out, retaining the same senior staff numbers from last term despite swelling their ranks across both houses by six MPs.
With 77 seats, Labor has an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Even if it chooses a speaker from its from own ranks, (Tasmanian Independent Andrew Willkie has put up his hand) Labor has the numbers to pass legislation in its own right.
The Senate is a different kettle of fish.
With only 26 senators, Labor needs the Greens’ 12, plus one independent, to get to the magic 39 to pass legislation in a senate of 76 seats. And they have an eclectic bunch to choose from – including Jaquie Lambie and One Nation with two each, and United Australia Party and David Pocock with one each. Of course, the Coalition has the balance with 32.
The news puts Labor’s relations with the cross bench seemingly off to a rocky start. Although Albanese sought to reassure the media that crossbenchers were more “constructive” in private than their objections to the media suggest.
While independents will still be able to draw upon electorate office staff, the salary cap of $87K will mean attracting suitably qualified and experienced staff to advise on issues of policy, legislation and media will be difficult. WB spoke with a former advisor to a crossbench independent to get an understanding of the practical realities that staffing cuts will have. “With a capped salary of about $136K, the one remaining senior staff allocation is likely to be a Chief of Staff – necessary to keep the electorate office and parliamentary offices functioning and acts as the principal advisor,” said the former staffer.
“The changes mean MPs and Senators may not have staff with in-depth policy or legislative experience, or anyone with solid media engagement to help them navigate the Parliamentary process.
“It’s false to suggest independents and backbenches of the major parties are equivalent. They’re very different. Backbenchers from the major parties rely on Ministerial staff, Whips and the party machine to do a lot of the heavily lifting in terms of policy and legislation. In most instances, backbenchers are given a brief and told how to vote. Independents must chart their own way and get into the detail of creating their own policy and assessing the Bills that come before Parliament.”
The former independent staffer also raised concerns about fatigue during sitting periods.
“Even with several other senior staff, I used to get to work at 7:30am and leave around 9-10pm. Now with the reduced numbers and seniority, the offices of independents are set to be under massive workloads.
“The Government of the day should want to attract the highest calibre of staff to Federal Parliament because that creates the best climate for democracy to succeed. This election, the Australian people overwhelmingly voted in a record number of crossbenchers. These independents and those from minor parties need the appropriate tools and staff to fulfill the mandate set by their electorates and States,” said the former staffer.
The trade off the Government is offering is additional resources to the Parliamentary Library, which produces outstanding research papers on legislation and significant policy matters. Still, those papers are necessarily non-partisan, and life in Canberra is first and foremost political.
Organisations looking to inform the legislative process need to be mindful of the important role of the Greens and the crossbench. Despite their importance, the loss of senior support staff will inevitably mean getting time with these Senators or their staff will be made all the more difficult. It’s essential to be respectful of their office’s time, from the diary manager up to the MP. So, if you’re just after a meet and greet, you may be out of luck. Any briefs you send their way need to be just that… brief. They also need to be clear and compelling with a clear ask that aligns to their platform and values. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.
Also, make sure briefs are heavily supported by evidence and are factual. If you drop them a factoid and it’s called out as rubbery after an Independent has gone to the media with it or referred to it in Parliament, at best you’re unlikely to get a second hearing, at worst, you could be publicly humiliated yourself.
Image source: The Guardian