KATINA CURTIS: How would Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton fare in a minority parliament?

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Katina Curtis
The West Australian
How would Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton fare in a minority parliament?
How would Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton fare in a minority parliament? Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

During question time on Wednesday, Anthony Albanese wandered up the back of the chamber for a lengthy chat with one of the crossbenchers.

The photographers’ shutters went wild.

But it’s not an unusual event for the Prime Minister to chat with the crossbenchers during or after question time; he’s often seen having a chat as they leave the chamber together.

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The Government has shown a willingness to let the expanded collection of independents and minor parties sitting up the back of the chamber own their wins when compromises are reached.

It suggests the politician known for being savvy about his numbers has at least one eye on the future and the very real possibility of there being a hung parliament in the next term.

A Canberra parlour game in the weeks before elections is guessing the make-up of the Lower House once the voters have had their say.

The stakes are generally a decent bottle of wine — but there’s more at play for the politicians.

At this stage, the Coalition starts notionally on 56 seats (it can reasonably expect to win back at least the seat from defector Russell Broadbent).

So it needs to win 20 seats to get to a majority.

The Liberals are running training sessions this week for the handful of new candidates preselected to date to give them the best shot at retaking key seats.

On the other hand, Labor only has to lose three seats before it loses the majority government

That’s before we see the electorate redistributions which might take away a Labor seat in Victoria and a Liberal or independent seat in NSW, and add one in Perth’s east that is assumed to be notionally Labor but could be lineball.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, January 24, 2024. Former News Corp chief executive Kim Williams has been announced to replace Ita Buttrose at the ABC. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

How would Albanese or Peter Dutton fare in a minority parliament?

The sentiment from senior Liberals is that it would be a positive for them — if they were still in opposition.

Those who came through Tony Abbott’s rampaging opposition concede the minority parliament was effective at legislating (think NDIS, paid parental leave, school funding, carbon and mining taxes) but that didn’t register in the public’s perception, not when the Coalition was able to turn every question time into chaos.

As this column has reflected previously, the disruptive tactics were so routine that what became known as Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech didn’t properly register at first.

Dutton appears to have modelled his opposition style on Abbott in many respects.

Colleagues expect he would thrive in the high-stakes chaos theatre of parliament and maybe even inflict more damage than Abbott.

Peter Dutton
How would Peter Dutton fare in a minority parliament? Credit: Bianca De Marchi/AAP

But the Liberals are also conscious that Labor is more experienced at managing parliament and Albanese and Leader of the House Tony Burke have repeatedly proven their strength as negotiators.

Labor has also learned from last time; Burke and Albanese inserted sneaky but strategic changes into the rules governing debate and tactics.

Almost a third of Labor’s lower house MPs — most of them now on the frontbench — sat through that 2010-2013 minority parliament and will have some idea what to expect.

Half as many Coalition MPs are veterans of that era; just 13, including Dutton, his deputy Sussan Ley and manager of Opposition business Paul Fletcher.

When it comes to navigating the archaic rules of parliament, experience counts for a lot.

On the other hand, if the major party seats were evenly balanced, the teal crossbenchers — however many survive — would find themselves with tough decisions.

They shied away from showing their hands on the question of who to back in 2022 but may not be able to avoid it next election.

Some firmly believe since these independents hold Liberal-leaning seats, they would have to back a Coalition government.

In that event, some Liberals predict a prime minister Dutton would fare well — maybe not as well as in the opposition role — although they suggest he would be more willing to go to an early election than compromise on core issues.

Others who recall the decision of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to back Labor — not to mention the types of issues the teals ran on — are less certain.

However, frustrations are growing within Labor about dealing with the rookie independents.

Albanese gets on OK with them (better than his long-standing enmity with the Greens) but that doesn’t mean he wants any more.

Others within Labor dismiss them as holier-than-thou “prefects”, fed up with what they see as grandstanding on moral issues and negotiating tactics that involve turning up en masse and grilling ministers.

The problem for the Government is at least some of the crossbenchers are aware of the perfect tag.

If frustrations boil over, cordial relations could sour just when the leadership needs the crossbench onside.

An occasional friendly chat is a good start but it’s not everything.

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