How to handle the crossbenchers
10 August 2020 at 3:53 pm
Between the two major parties, managing your government engagement is already a large enough job. However, engaging with the crossbench is a next level, high wire act, writes Neil Pharaoh.
Crossbenchers are a unique beast. Outside of the two major parties, almost all parliaments in Australia have a few “crossbenchers” – those independent or minor party MPs who belong to neither the government or opposition benches and sit between them in parliament.
The Australian Senate has 61 members that are either government or opposition and 15 crossbenchers. Both in the Federal Senate and upper houses across Australia, crossbench members often assume the role of gatekeeper and can play a critical part in decisions on whether proposed laws pass or are rejected. A notable example of the crossbench influence in a key law passing was the GST, where the Democrats negotiated its successful passage (with several concessions) in crossbench. An example of crossbench influence in a law being rejected was when the Greens Party voted down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Carbon Price), arguably resulting in the 11 turbulent years we have had since, in an Australia without a carbon emission policy.
But the question is: how best to engage with a crossbencher? Is it like engaging a government MP, or an opposition MP? Do you work with them for genuine policy formulation? Or purely for tactics?
After years of working in and around this space, I have found there are four general types of crossbenchers. And recognising who you are working with can dictate the approach, engagement methods and activities you should engage in.
In my opinion, the four types are:
- Grenade throwers – these MPs use their elected position most effectively in social and traditional media. Their political actions are largely centered around self-interest and they often leave a trail of injured social purpose organisations in their wake, while outwardly evincing support.
- Constructive enablers – these MPs work with either side of government to secure outcomes for their community and constituencies.
- Single-issue sidekicks – often elected on a hyper narrow platform, these MPs claim to assess all issues “on merit” but can sometimes struggle to understand the consequences of decisions outside their focus area.
- Deer in the headlights – These MPs have usually been propelled into a seat in unique circumstances and being new to the systems, process, ego and bright lights of politics – often bounce between the three other types.
Let’s now see how we can identify, understand and work with each of the different general types of crossbencher. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
You have the most amazing meeting with them. They are conviction led, agree with every single one of your concerns, and don’t have any hesitation in supporting your issue. They see no problem with anything you are doing, and it all seems to be too good to be true. They offer to raise your issue in parliament (perhaps as a question on notice or member’s statement) and make sure they send you a copy of the Hansard afterwards, showing that they raised your issue and fought passionately for you on the floor of parliament. You feel supported, empowered, and satisfied that somebody took your issue to the floor of parliament.
Sadly though, this can be the worst crossbencher to work with. In effect, regardless of which party is in power, raising your issue with government via a question on notice or member statement (or worse still, moving legislation or regulations they know will fail) is the equivalent of putting a nuclear bomb under the government. When backed into a corner by a loud, vocal and often vitriolic stoush on the floor of parliament, whoever is in government will effectively have no chance of being able to show support for your cause now. The optics in the media look great for the grenade thrower, they can show they raised the issue in parliament and fought for you. Sadly, it is likely that you will end up as collateral damage in their well-targeted social media posturing after the event. The long and short of this type of crossbencher, is despite best intentions, you are being used to pursue their agenda, pursue their profile, and while you will be made to feel good about it, your organisation will suffer as a result. No government wants to go near you if these are your good friends. My advice here is: tread very, very carefully.
My preferred crossbencher. They come from the right, left and center of politics, so you may disagree with their views, but they work with you to be an enabler in the system, and know that a member statement or question on notice is only a last resort, done in discussion with you, and helping you understand the consequences. Constructive enablers are usually street smart and bring experience from other fields. They will inform you as to their limits, and the limits of government, but will offer to casually speak to a minister off the record in the chamber, or over a drink. They will write letters to support and enable you, including to government, will keep you updated when they do, and ensure that they are not leaked to the press. They will fight for causes in their community, using informal channels, parliamentary committees, review processes, relationships and discussions. Although I do not agree with some of their views, people like Robbie Katter MP QLD (not Bob), Fiona Patten MLC VIC, Andy Meddick MLC VIC, Senator Jackie Lambie (second time around, Tasmania), Centre Alliance and for those who can remember, former Senator Brian Harradine (Tasmania) are just some examples of crossbenchers who always let you know where they stand. They can be engaged in a real discussion and won’t throw you under the bus for their own political game; they know the system is bigger than them. My advice here is to build a solid close relationship with them, these types of crossbenchers can make magic happen – whether funding, policy changes or reform.
Often elected through forms of preference harvesting. Sometimes by mistake or accident, as they fight on narrow, single-issue platforms which the large majority of Australians couldn’t care less about. Or they have such a singular focus that every discussion with them returns to the same topic. Occasionally you see a single-issue sidekick in a major party; they will only talk about one or two areas of interest. The best way of working with this type is to appeal to their ego, and to their issue – engage on turf they are familiar with and make sure every discussion reverts back to their single issue, or at least can be compared to it. They are not the most effective at navigating government systems and processes and vacillate between enabling and grenade throwing on occasion. I prefer a single-issue sidekick to a grenade, but they are still a far cry from the ideal of the constructive enabler.
Deer in the headlights
Parliament is a new, exciting, ego-driven game, with chauffeur driven cars and secure COVID proof salaries. And curiously, some people just end up there. The deer type is new to this world and is trying to find their way. With some guidance and the right people around them they can become constructive enablers. However, ego and media can easily take hold. The result being grenade throwers become their preference, or they become locked onto a particular issue and move towards becoming a sidekick. Essentially, deers can head in any direction.
It would be defamatory of me to name those who I believe to be the current grenades, sidekicks and deers in parliament, but I am sure you have already come across some, if not all, of the above in your parliamentary interactions.
Remember, the basics of great government engagement are knowing the media is a last resort, knowing the parliamentary floor should be used sparingly and wisely, and that you do not want to be collateral damage in a nuclear blast. As for the major parties, good opposition MPs will often act like enablers and the less than ideal members more like grenades.
Just be sure that if you choose to light the fuse, you know who is going to get blown up.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.