The Labor government could have trouble fulfilling its domestic agenda after crossbench MPs threatened to block all government legislation in the Senate after cuts were made to staffing entitlements.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese informed crossbench MPs and senators on June 24 that they would only be allowed to hire one parliamentary staffer (a senior adviser) along with four electoral office staff.
Under the previous Morrison government, independents could hire four parliamentary staff each—two advisers and two assistant advisers—on top of their four electoral staff.
Speaking to ABC radio on June 27, Albanese said that independent MPs and senators would be serviced by more staff compared to MPs from the major parties, and they would also receive higher salaries.
Further, these staff would have travel privileges not afforded to backbenchers.
“They’re not totally on their own. The fact is that they have access to the Parliamentary Library that we will be increasing support for. They have access to clerks that draft legislation, in addition to personal staff,” Albanese said.
Albanese said there was also confusion about the role of staff in response to comments from MPs saying they did not want electorate office staff involved in work at Parliament.
“The fact is that people who work as electorate officers often do parliamentary work,” he said. “That’s how every single backbencher operates and indeed, frontbenchers, as well.”
“We had a circumstance whereby I didn’t know, and I can’t find any great record of any publicity, for the fact that some crossbenchers had double the staff that other backbenchers had.”
Staff Cuts a Cost-Saving Exercise
Finance Minister Katy Gallagher said the staffing cuts will save the government over $1.5 million (US$1 million) a year.
“Just because you’re employed under electorate arrangements doesn’t mean you don’t work in the Parliament,” Gallagher told reporters on June 27.
“It’s simply not right to say, well, they only get stay in the electorate, and they don’t do any work in the Parliament.”
Gallagher said the government recognised that the crossbench needed additional resources.
“They get one additional personnel allocation and we believe that’s a fair and sustainable way forward, ” she said.
Decision Endangers Labor’s Ability to Work in the Senate
However, the response from minor and independent MPs has been fierce.
Senators Jacquie Lambie, Tammy Tyrrell, David Pocock, as well as One Nation’s Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts issued a joint press release calling the decision a direct attack on democracy that would only serve to “decrease scrutiny on legislation” introduced to Parliament, noting that in the previous Parliament senators scrutinised 550 bills.
“This is also a direct attack on the people of Australia who decided to put their trust in independents and minor parties to represent them federally,” the senators said.
“Moreover, it flies in the face of earlier remarks from the prime minister that he was hoping for a more collaborative term of Parliament, where members and senators from across party lines could come together to genuinely improve conditions for Australians.”
Review Reveals Parliamentary Staff Struggling With Workload
The independents also rejected Prime Minister Albanese’s comments saying electorate office staff could assist with parliamentary duties.
“The Jenkins Review was clear that parliamentary offices are under-resourced and staff struggle to keep up with the significant workload,” they said.
“This cut will only further deteriorate conditions in Parliament, and make it impossible for crossbench senators to carefully interrogate legislation, hold the government to account, and ensure we are supporting laws that are in the best interests of our communities and our nation.”
They also claimed the Albanese government had “significantly damaged relationships with the crossbench.”
Independent MP Zali Steggall in a thread posted on Twitter echoed the senators’ comments and accused Labor of trying to muzzle independents.
“Is the PM ignoring the fact Labor has a slim majority in the [House of Representatives] and no majority in the Senate? To so drastically cut staff would delay and compromise the course of legislation by leaving crossbench members without the resources to review and adequately assess legislation,” she wrote.