Five tips for the APS in helping ministers deal with an independent crossbench

By Brenton Prosser

May 27, 2022

long corridor of offices
Some tips for the APS in helping their incoming minister navigate the new sea of teal in parliament.(photographyfirm/Adobe)

Even by recent standards, the cries of ‘a vote for an independent is a vote for chaos’, seemed more prominent in the last weeks of the federal election campaign. Yet this time around, there were also claims that minority government reduced certainty, financial stability and national security.

These cries did not resonate with the electorate. The new parliament is now awash with teal and other independents.

Early indications are that the new Albanese government intends a more collegial approach than recent administrations. Both towards the independents and the parliament.

But for many in the APS, this future may look like a lot more work, greater risk of delays and the politicising of otherwise evidence-based policy.

So, what does the APS need to do to help their incoming minister navigate the new sea of teal?

Governing a minority or slim majority

Minority is not a new thing. The senate is one of the most powerful upper houses in the world. It has functioned well in minority for almost all of the past 30 years.

Well-seasoned pundits also note that the Gillard minority government holds the record for passing the most legislation. The new PM was the leader of government business in the house and pivotal in this minority government.

That said, even with a slim majority and the strict voting discipline of the ALP, it would be wise to govern as though it were a minority government. It is in the interests of the ALP to engage meaningfully with the teal and independent seats. Not just to keep them out of the hands of the Liberals at the next election, but in case of a minority government after that.

But beyond that, the new PM has already shared his intention to get out of the way and let his ministers shine, an approach that could well extend to APS leaders. Like it or not, the APS will have a central role in supporting their minister to deal with the teals.

Based on past research and my experience as a senior staffer with Senator Nick Xenophon – here are five simple strategies that any astute minister would support.

1. Don’t try to be a-political, be all-political

I recall a phone call from a ministerial chief-of-staff soon after my senator had been central in the defeat of an important bill. They wanted a confidential conversation around what might be needed to secure the minister’s support.

About half an hour later, the phone rang again. They talked about an idea that the department had put forward but that the minister had knocked back early. About half an hour after that phone call, the Greens called. They said they had won a concession from the minister that they thought my senator might like. It was the same proposal. The bill soon passed.

The point of this story is not the deft work of an experienced political operator. It is the public service leadership that prepared evidence for a full range of options — not just what the minister wanted. Decisions will be made based on political interests.

Refusing to engage means that departmental expertise and evidence exit the conversation early. Here, the role of the APS is to be non-partisan rather than a-political. Their role can enhance the work of the Parliamentary Library, which is an essential, (sometimes only) non-partisan (but finite) resource for the cross-bencher.

An APS that understands the political spectrum and prepares for options that span that full spectrum not only gives solid evidence a better chance in politicised contexts but it also sets up your minister for success with the crossbench.

2. The APS serves the parliament, not the minister

My colleague and *co-author Richard Denniss often tells a story of meeting with senior APS officers just after the Gillard minority government formed. He asked, ‘What do you do if a crossbencher puts up a Private Members Bill that your minister opposes and the department advises is a bad idea but the opposition supports’? He recounts stunned silence. The answer is ‘the department implements it’.

In practical terms, successful PMBs are relatively rare. What is more likely is that the government will be forced by the reputational impact of a loss on the floor to put up their own bill. What is even more likely is that amendments will succeed that change how the policy is implemented. It is far better for the APS to be understanding the parliament, having input and drafting legislation. Otherwise, it may be responsible for implementing something it would never advise.

Also, there is little point in investing public resources into preparing policy options that a majority will not support. Given how closely the public service leaders monitor the words of their minister, with minority government, shouldn’t they monitor the parliament just as closely?

3. Be respectful and go early

In the past, some have succumbed to the temptation of taking advantage of crossbenchers while they are still learning the ropes. This is not to be advised. Parliamentarians not only have long memories, but history tells us that once an independent holds a seat, they can be hard to displace.

One of the fascinating stories to come out of our interviews with senate chiefs-of-staff during the Abbott government was unanimous respect for senator Ricky Muir.

He had secured a place in the senate for the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. He did so on a tiny vote and preferences. But he was best known for a video that had him labelled ‘the kangaroo poo man’. It would be easy to not take him seriously. Yet, interviews reported that he stood out as a hard-working and balanced senator who was attuned to detail. He was not to be taken for granted. If the MP holds a vote that your minister needs now (or may need in the future), don’t go by public perceptions.

A tried and true strategy is also to approach the crossbench as early as possible. Interviews with former MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor recount that they were hit with a flood of information well before it was seen by cabinet. This was equally true of the Howard government. Here, ministers not only delivered bills for consideration but they also provided suggestions for crossbench amendments as well.

In the time I worked with senator Xenophon, the office of Chris Evans (who had the difficult immigration portfolio) would always meet early. They would say, ‘you are not going to see this for six months and we don’t think you will like this, but we want your input so we can work on it now’.

Given the sheer enormity of workload that goes through the office of a crossbencher and their finite resources, anything you can do to make their lives easier helps your minister’s cause. Admittedly, this work needs to be driven by the ministerial adviser. But an APS that is available, providing the required information in a form that makes sense for their electorates, is a vital enabler.

4. Don’t pigeon-hole independents as blue, red or teal

There can be a tendency by governments and even the APS to view new MPs and senators through the lens of a single ideology. Are they left or right? Are they blue, red or green? Are they watermelon or teal?

In reality, independents (like all parliamentarians) need not be bound by ideology. They will be interested in a range of issues. Their deciding vote may require them to take an interest in other issues. They may land in positions that seem inconsistent to political convention, but be entirely consistent to them or their constituents.

It is also important to realise that their contribution is rarely that simple. Just as climate change cuts across portfolios, one form of social disadvantage usually intersects with others. A so-called ‘one issue’ independent or ‘single issue’ party will not be only interested in one issue. The best advice for public sector leaders is to be ready to respond efficiently and effectively to a diverse range of perspectives and requests.

Most important, however, is to realise that the recent election brought in some fresh leadership talent in the form of the independents – any smart administration will want the APS to make the most of their expertise.

5. Help independents to involve their communities

In the election campaign, former PM Scott Morrison quipped that policy is not made around a kitchen table. However, with the new community-based model inspired by the seat of Indi, that is exactly where it is being shaped.

Most independents have very different ways of securing the support of their constituents to the major parties. Minor parties like the Greens also have direct forms of member involvement in policy decision-making. This has important implications for the APS when thinking about how to involve communities.

Fortunately, the days are gone when APS stakeholder engagement was a ‘tick box’ to inform the public. The focus on consultation as expectations management has declined. There is now more investment of time and resources into collaboration and co-design of policy. This embraces diversity and seeks out unintended consequences with harder to reach groups.

It is important to showcase these approaches with community-focused independents. Demonstrating genuine community information sharing and engagement will be important to win support.

Another opportunity is to provide them with ready resources for back-yard briefings and kitchen cabinets. Help them to activate their new models in participatory democracy in line with their constituent models. This may take more planning and effort, but it will result in smoother passage through parliament and better policy for the minister.

Ultimately, each of these five approaches can also contribute to a stronger democracy.

* Professor Brenton Prosser and Richard Denniss are former political staffers and authors ofMinority Policy: rethinking governance when parliament matters, published by Melbourne University Press.


READ MORE:

Teal, yes — but what shade of teal?

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