Will 2015 see the rise or fall of crossbenchers?

The motley crew of independent, micro and minor party senators has been a constant headache for the Abbott Government and one that it must come to terms with in 2015.

The ministry reshuffle earlier this month may help draw a line under the Abbott Government’s unedifying first year, allowing it to make a fresh start (of sorts) as it prepares for the 2015 budget.

No assistance in this renewal process will be offered, however, from the Senate crossbenchers. This motley crew of independent, micro and minor party senators, whose only connection is a shared resolve to achieve their disparate political objectives, will continue to play merry hell with the Government and its attempts to be seen to be back in control.

Voters whose views align with one or more of the crossbenchers’ niche agendas call this democracy in action. Those who disagree call it a perversion of the majority rule that is meant to underpin democracy. Either way, this is the Abbott Government’s political reality, and one that it must come to terms with in 2015.

Minor and micro parties have been a part of Australian politics since 1910. While more than 650 have existed at one time or another, only a handful have endured for more than a couple of elections.

Yet in recent times voter support for the two major parties has declined with an attendant rise in support for minor parties and in the number of people who vote informally or not at all.

This has involved a turnaround in community views about the role of minor and micro parties since the Gillard years, at which time the Greens and independents that had helped Julia Gillard form government were blamed for imposing a carbon tax on the economy as part of the deal.

Barely weeks after Gillard announced the details of the carbon price deal in February 2011 only 27 per cent of voters thought the independents and Greens holding the balance of power in Parliament had been good for Australia, while 41 per cent thought it had been bad. Three years later, that proportion had barely changed; just before the crossbench took up its new pivotal role on July 1, 2014 still only 28 per cent of voters thought the Greens holding the balance of power had been good (and 37 per cent bad) for the nation.

Even though voters had become more optimistic about the new minor party crossbench immediately after the 2013 election, they then became reticent as the time approached for the new Senate to commence.

And yet after all the shenanigans of the year just past, due in no small part to the antics of Clive Palmer and his PUPs in the Senate, a follow-up opinion poll earlier this month found 36 per cent of voters now see the crossbench having the balance of power as being a good thing, while only 26 per cent see it negatively.

This trend raises the question whether the Senate crossbench is a passing phase in protest against the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years or the beginning of a fundamental shift away from the two-party system.

Various theories are advanced for the major parties’ loss of electoral favour. One is that they have lost touch with traditional voters by adopting policies that are more attractive to mercurial swinging voters in the mortgage belts.

Another is that an influx of the professional political elite such as former political advisers, party apparatchiks and trade union leaders has infested the parliament with cookie-cutter MPs with little “real life” experience or associated empathy with voters.

And then there is the hollowing out of political communication, in which risk-averse politicians and their advisers reduce every public utterance to a glib sound-grab in the hope of getting traction in the relentlessly veracious news cycle without letting slip an opinion, fact or commitment that could be brought back later to haunt them.

These theories help explain the popularity of the colourful, outspoken and somewhat unpolished independent, micro and minor party senators who now make up the crossbench. Their shoot-from-the-hip approach to political strategy and refusal to mince words are seen as a refreshing change from what the major parties have served up even when the crossbenchers’ (often extreme) policies are particularly disconcerting.

And it has to be said that many voters have enjoyed the spectacle of the Prime Minister having to contend with the disruption that an obstructionist crossbench has delivered. This in itself could be responsible for the lift in support of the crossbenchers.

But is it enough for the Parliament to provide entertainment for voters and wreak retribution on their behalf, particularly when this can be accompanied by horse-trading that make fringe policies a reality? Or do voters ultimately want the stability and predictability that major parties bring?

If the trend in favour of the minor parties and independents is more a transient protest against the instability and poor behaviour of the Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years, voters may be prepared to return to the major parties if they can actually act like grownups. This may be a factor in the positive turnaround of federal Labor’s support since the election.

The expectation that voters would prefer to return stability to the Senate may also be the reason why the prospect of a double dissolution election is still being kept alive.

Whether one chooses to call the current state of play democracy or its warped and shadowy cousin, something in Australian politics will have to give in 2015: either the Government’s hardline approach to economic reform, Labor and the Greens’ equally uncompromising style, or the crossbenchers’ hold on the balance of power.

The outcome will depend entirely upon whether voters’ fascination with the non-major political players is a relic of the past or a sign of the future.

Whether we return to the major parties’ status quo or to the permanent disruption of minor and micro parties, this will be an authentic renewal that will shape what our future democracy looks like.