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Negotiating the Australian Senate

Keith Stacey


The election has come and gone leaving the nation in a state of exhaustion and confusion. It is rare when the person who lost the election then proceeds to do a victory lap. The winner has been described as “the dog that has finally caught the car after many years of pursuit and is not quite sure what to do with it”.

However, politics is the art of the possible and the government will need to play the hand it has been dealt skillfully. There is where their negotiating skills will be at a premium. Count Otto von Bismarck defined the possible as the attainable – the art of the next best. Scotwork would label this a compromise - where both parties give up ground and accept the next best. A skilled negotiator may find themselves achieving all that they desire if they are first prepared to understand what the other party wants. This is best illustrated in the Senate where the number of independents has increased. The government will have to negotiate with Senators who have totally different agendas. Two examples will illustrate the problem faced, but also propose some opportunities this government may have in order to advance its agenda.

The first is the passage of the ABCC legislation that was the reason for the double dissolution in the first place. Senator Lambie has previously voted “no” on this legislation. The importance of a “no” is to understand what the “no” actually represents. Is it a “no” on principle or is there another reason behind it? In Senator Lambie’s case, her stated reason was that the legislation was too narrow and that a wider body to investigate corruption, a national ICAC, should be established. The obvious deal would be to establish such a body with a specialist arm focused on the building industry. So, give her what she wants in return for gaining her support for your agenda.

A similar process could be used with Team Xenophon who wants Australian manufacturing jobs protected and are therefore opposed to the Free Trade Deals (FTA’s) already negotiated. The government could be innovative and propose some “nimble and agile” initiatives in the South Australian manufacturing sector in return for the support of the FTA’s. Again, both parties to an agreement can advance their full agenda without resorting to the sort of watering down of demands implicit in a compromise. Let us hope we see these skills on display in the new parliament – but they will require creative and flexibility on both sides. 


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