The Politics    Monday, June 27, 2022

Very cross bench

By Rachel Withers

Image of Independent Member for Warringah Zali Steggall speaking in the House of Representatives, October 27, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Independent Member for Warringah Zali Steggall speaks in the House of Representatives, October 27, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Labor appeals to fairness to justify a crossbench staffing decision that looks distinctly unfair

What was Labor thinking when it decided to cut crossbenchers’ parliamentary staff allocation from four to one, putting independents (and their voters) offside? Finance Minister Katy Gallagher attempted to defend the decision on RN Breakfast this morning, saying that “the prime minister isn’t trying to put anyone offside”. But that is exactly what he has done, with pissed-off senators now considering joining forces to disrupt debate in parliament’s first sitting week. The furore has continued today as incoming United Australia Party senator Ralph Babet echoed his furious colleagues, while their lower-house counterparts have continued to speak out, with Helen Haines yesterday warning that this could even delay the ICAC bill. For whatever reason, Anthony Albanese is doubling down, with both he and Gallagher telling ABC radio that it isn’t “fair” for crossbenchers to demand twice as many staff as government backbenchers, repeatedly pointing to the fact that Labor intends to pour more resources into the parliamentary library. But can’t they see how patently unfair it looks to hobble the crossbench, who have fewer resources in general than government MPs?

Labor seems to think that appealing to fairness here will assuage the public, if not the furious independents, with members of the government repeatedly noting that having four advisers for independents was a Morrison-era aberration, rather than the norm. “We have one vote, one value in this country,” the prime minister told reporters last night, before flying out for the NATO summit in Madrid. Speaking on AM, Albanese pushed back against the idea that this was “dismissive” and “arrogant”. “Well, what is not fair is the idea that Zali Steggall’s electorate should have double the representation in terms of staff of electorates in the same region,” he said, adding that they had previously had more staff than senior frontbenchers had in Opposition. Gallagher, meanwhile, tried to argue that government backbenchers worked just as hard as crossbenchers, and it was unfair to suggest otherwise. “Every member of parliament sits on committees, every member of parliament looks at legislation,” she told RN. The government, she added, had reduced its own staffing bill by about $1.5 million in its bid to save money. But as Nine’s James Massola points out, that’s only a third of the approximately $4.5 million hit the crossbench has taken. (Both amounts are, of course, peanuts compared to the Stage Three tax cuts that Labor refuses to undo.)

Labor rusted-ons seem to have swallowed these “fairness” arguments, with many tearing into the teal independents for what they argue is their arrogance. “It would be dumb to elevate their status beyond what they are,” economist Stephen Koukoulas tweeted this morning. “Backbenchers for one electorate.” But it’s unlikely that will fly with those communities – or, it seems, with much of the media, with both AM’s Sabra Lane and RN’s Patricia Karvelas pushing back on the “fairness” line, and pointing out the obvious differences between being a government backbencher and an independent (not least that the former has an entire party apparatus behind them). Complaints of how few staff Labor had to survive with in Opposition (or as the Centre for Future Work’s Greg Jericho put it, “we had it worse so it’s ok for it to be bad”) are not particularly persuasive either. With former staffers coming forward to share just how overworked they were, why is this being treated as acceptable at all?

This does appear to be, as Lane put it to the PM this morning, “a terrible own goal” for Albanese, given what he had said previously about being “more respectful” in this parliament. Labor has put many people offside, not just the independents. When pushed today, Gallagher indicated that Labor might be willing to budge on the allocation, moving instead to two advisers (but this decision was, the finance minister insisted, above her paygrade). But even if four was deemed excessive, it’s hard to fathom how the government thought it could simply inform the crossbench that their staffing allocation would be cut by 75 per cent without so much as consulting them. Labor seems to collectively believe, deep down, that this is what’s fair, especially after what it went through in Opposition. But undercutting the emboldened crossbench in this way, after the ringing electoral endorsement they just received, looks to many to be unjust – and certainly not the answer to the public’s growing disenchantment with the two major parties.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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