The end of the Age of Clive

And then there was one. In the Senate, at least.

Palmer United Party’s Glenn Lazarus announced overnight that he’d left PUP to become an independent, leaving the party with only one vote in the upper house.

Lazarus made the announcement via Facebookand Twitter just after midnight, noting this was a difficult decision and hinting at irreconcilable differences with party leader Clive Palmer:

I have a different view of team work. Given this, I felt it best that I resign from the party and pursue my Senate role as an independent Senator.

A media report suggests Lazarus took this action after his wife was sacked as his chief of staff.

The departure of Lazarus leaves Palmer with only former employee Dio Wang in the Senate and next to no negotiating power compared to what he wielded in that chamber for a few tumultuous months in 2014.

Since his election to the Australian Parliament in 2013, Palmer’s power has not come from his single vote in the House of Representatives but from the three-vote bloc that he controlled in the Senate. Since the new Senate commenced on July 1, 2014 with the eight-Senator crossbench, the Government had to secure six votes from the crossbench to pass any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. However, only three votes were needed to block any such legislation.

This essentially gave Palmer the right of veto, and played to his grandiose perceptions of importance and influence.

Only those delusions could explain Palmer’s decision to share the stage with former US vice-president Al Gore to announce a “dormant” emissions trading scheme while simultaneously committing to scrap the carbon tax.

Only an overwhelming sense of self-worth could have produced Palmer’s trenchant statements of opposition to a panoply of government policies, followed by audaciously nonchalant changes of course when the political headwinds shifted.

This inconsistent and autocratic style would have been less an issue if Palmer had been the sole PUP member of Parliament. However it is difficult to manage a party using only tyranny and cronyism.

It may well have only been a matter of time before PUP’s tyro senators began to better appreciate their individual power and got an increasing urge to use it, but Palmer’s overbearing “my way or the highway” style would have undoubtedly contributed to their restlessness.

Former PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie was the first of the party’s federal MPs to expose the dissent behind PUP’s shiny yellow façade. After Palmer was less than effusive about her proposed “burqa” ban, called her a drama queen over her campaign to improve defence force pay, and then suspended her from attending PUP party room meetings, Lambie moved to sever ties with the man who bankrolled her campaign.

In truth, Lambie was never a good fit for PUP. Her penchant for straight-talking and reluctance to toe the party line made her a likely candidate for leaving Palmer’s eponymous party.

But the man who left PUP today would have been considered much less likely to do so. If there’s one thing the former rugby league hero lacks, it’s certainly not the capacity for loyalty. His fidelity to family and the voters of Queensland certainly sit comfortably with the report that the sacking of his wife forced Lazarus’ hand.

For his part, Palmer might not particularly care. Having witnessed the defeat of his nemesis, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman at the recent state election, and the ongoing electoral deterioration of his other foe PM, Tony Abbott, Palmer may well feel his work here is done. His attendance record in the Parliament certainly doesn’t indicate a burning desire to participate or contribute.

This might be just as well, considering Palmer is no longer the media’s darling, partly because he’s no longer particularly relevant but also because he treats the press with impunity. His recent “accidental” call for Abbott to commit (political) suicide was not indulged as it once might have been, and instead was called out for being the desperate ploy for media attention that it was.

The trajectory of Palmer’s hobby-political party has now followed that of his hobby-football team. After recruiting a number of disaffected conservative MPs from other parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and then losing them again, PUP has gone from controlling a peak of nine MPs around the country to two – Senator Dio Wang and Palmer himself.

PUP offered voters an alternative to the major parties and a commonsense approach to contentious policies. But in truth it was nothing more than the hollow sales pitch of a white-shoed wannabe.

For the good of the nation, let’s hope today’s departure of Lazarus from the Palmer United Party brings an ignominious close to the Age of Clive in Australian politics.

Will 2015 see the rise or fall of crossbenchers?

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.

Lambie doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to quit

It’s no longer a matter of when but how Jacqui Lambie will leave the party that delivered her one of the most decisive (and divisive) roles in today’s polity.

Back in 2013, with minimal experience in party politics and a fast-diminishing campaign war-chest, Lambie had her heart set on getting into the Senate despite having unsuccessfully tested the waters with Labor and been rejected by the Liberals.

The offer from cashed-up Clive Palmer to join the Palmer United Party’s Tasmanian Senate ticket must have seemed almost too good to be true.

And so it has been. Lambie may have ridden on PUP’s short-lived swell into the Senate – a feat she would not have achieved in her previous incarnation as an independent candidate – but since becoming a minor celebrity due to her pivotal membership of the Senate crossbench, the new Senator has quickly outgrown the limits of party solidarity.

Lambie has been agitating about her right to speak out on matters of interest, even if not necessarily of interest to PUP, ever since she arrived in Canberra. Various thought bubbles have ensued, starting with the one on mandatory national service for young Australians and most recently the even more controversial call to ban the “burqa”.

In response, Palmer has evolved from commenting that Lambie is entitled to express her own views, to having to reject some of her suggestions such as the call for a “silent protest” at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Lambie has consequently been unhappy that party solidarity is not a two-way street, even though according to Palmer the Senator appears to have made no effort to bring those issues to the party room for discussion or to determine a PUP position.

Whether she’s perceived as behaving like a petulant teenager, or a passionate defender of those she represents, Lambie is ratcheting up the pressure on Palmer to throw her out of PUP. (Or her senior adviser is doing so, depending on the extent to which one believes Rob Messenger is Lambie’s David Oldfield or Svengali.)

Earlier this week Lambie delivered on her commitment to oppose all Government legislation until the ADF pay decision is overturned, and split from her party to vote against the revised social services bill. She also voted against anti-doping legislation that in other circumstances she says she would likely have supported.

Today’s news that Lambie will join Labor and most of the crossbench Senators to disallow the FOFA regulations continues that war of attrition. In voting to disallow the regulations, Lambie will directly oppose a deal her party leader made with the Government.

If Lambie had been a Labor member, voting against her party in this way could be grounds for expulsion. However, the Coalition is somewhat more flexible on such matters, with Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce being two high-profile examples of Coalition MPs having crossed the floor against their parties and not only survived but been appointed to Cabinet.

There is no question that Lambie will soon be an independent member of the crossbench. Over past days, the Senator has removed the PUP logo from her website, refused to attend PUP meetings, chosen to sit away from her party colleagues when attending the joint meeting of the Parliament, and removed all trace of yellow from her wardrobe.

In turn, Lambie has essentially been excommunicated from PUP: cut from the list of PUP MPs on the party’s website, removed as the party’s deputy Senate leader and deputy whip, and (in a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) suspended from attending party meetings.

In short, Lambie is daring Palmer to sack her, while he in turn is trying to make her leave. This manoeuvring is all about who can position themselves as the victim once the split has taken place. Lambie wants to be sacked, firstly so she doesn’t have to break a previous commitment made to Palmer to stay, but more importantly so she can continue to claim underdog status.

Palmer however didn’t come down in the last shower. The canny operator is biding his time, putting pressure on Lambie to leave by isolating her and her staff from the party, while offering empty platitudes so that he can capitalise on what would be her broken commitment to stay and paint himself as the wronged party.

This will be important if Palmer follows through on a suggestion made last weekend that he will pursue Lambie with lengthy and expensive legal action if she leaves.