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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

What does Saturday’s election result mean for your Canberra government relations strategy?

Given that some clients have already asked me what Saturday’s election result means for their government relations strategy, I thought I might give a broad answer here for everyone. My clients, of course, are getting briefs that will be more tailored to their specific government relations and political engagement strategies at the federal level.

Just as in Friday’s article about which seats to watch as the count rolled in on Saturday, I won’t discuss policies, politics or politicians’ personalities in this piece either. Suffice it to say, how on the money I was, but for the seats in Tasmania – but, seriously, who called the "ejector seats" as safe for this times incumbents?

The election result has meant an astonishing number of crossbench politicians (let's call them "crossbenchers") that will be comprised of the Greens, other minor parties and independents. Labor has achieved the minimum 76 seats to form a majority government. The so-called “teal independents” did especially well, knocking over the long-considered safe Liberal seats of Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne and North Sydney, Mackellar and Wentworth in Sydney. We won’t know the final numbers for Labor’s majority or of the crossbenchers for a few days yet as five seats remain in doubt. And the Senate result is still coming in.

So, what does all this mean?

New sheriff in town

Firstly, there’s a new sheriff in town. Every organisation concerned about federal policies and legislation will need to beat a path to the doors of the offices of the new ministers who are important to them. If you were smart you would have established relationships with them prior to the election – a long time prior to the election. If you’re lucky the shadow ministers you were dealing with during the last parliament of Australia will hold onto the portfolios they had in Opposition now that they are in Government. So far Albanese (naturally - he's the boss), Richard Marles (Deputy Prime Minister), Penny Wong (Foreign Affairs), Jim Chalmers (Treasurer) and Katy Gallagher (Finance Minister) are the only ministers to have been sworn in today. Their swearing in was expedited so Albanese and Wong could head to Tokyo today for the important Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) meeting with their counterparts from, the US, Japan and India. That meeting was deemed too important for them to miss - it certainly is.

The good news is that four of the five will continue in the same portfolios they held as shadow ministers. The only exception is Richard Marles who is expected also to be made Defence Minister. Marles was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister so he can act as Prime Minister while Albanese is out of the country. (It is standard protocol that the Deputy Prime Minister acts as PM while the "big fella" is out of the country or on holidays.)

Other ministers will be decided after the final election results are known, and following a meeting of the Labor Party Caucus and the factional deals that will inevitably take place in Canberra. You’ll have to watch this space and make plans to renew old acquaintances or to get to know the new ministers as soon as they are determined. Stay tuned ….

And some new settlers are moving in

But, the most important change is the tectonic shift that has occurred in Australian politics.

Both the Liberal and Labor parties saw significant drops in their primary votes to the benefit of the Greens in Brisbane seats and to the teals in Sydney and Melbourne seats. That change is likely to remain for a long time.

The demographics of the Australian electorate have changed significantly since the Abbott Government won office nine years ago. A large cohort of new voters were primary school pupils when the Coalition won in 2013. Denial of climate change and the costs of the previous Labor Government's carbon taxes may have won the election for the Coalition then, but this new generation of voters is concerned with climate change and wants to see more done about it. And they are prepared to pay the price for it.

And, while Tony Abbott was putting forward policies to support what he called “women of calibre”, women of calibre in the teal independent movement have unseated several Liberal Party men from their safe seats – including high profile former treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

This change in the electorate will not only remain for the next decade (indeed, it could be much more permanent a change) but also threatens the Labor Party and possibly even the Greens. Indeed, the Greens only did well in the lower house vote in Brisbane where the teals did not run candidates as they did in Sydney and Melbourne.

Organisations seeking to influence policy and legislation in the capital cannot afford to ignore the new crossbenchers. You will need to include outreach to the independents in your government engagement plans.

This is particularly important as many of the independents have very narrow focuses on issues such as climate change and the need for an anti-corruption watchdog at the federal level. They lack broad policy interests and expertise, and they will lack the resources (i.e., political staffers) to get across the details of every policy program and legislative bill before the parliament (unless of course they act like a political party and pool their resources).

This situation presents an opportunity for organisations that will need to influence the Government. Although Labor will be able to rule with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, that doesn’t mean every policy idea or piece of legislation will succeed. It is very likely that crossbenchers will continue to hold, the balance of power in the upper house. As all legislation needs to pass both houses of parliament it will be critical for the Labor Government to negotiate and win support from a majority of crossbenchers in the Senate to progress its agenda.

It will therefore be critical to engage with the crossbenchers in both the House and the Senate (simply because they talk to each other) to affect policy and legislative debates..By engaging with them you can help to fill their knowlege gaps by providing timely information on how policies and legislation might impact your sector or your specific organisation. Given that a lot of the time government policy or legislation usually succumb to the "law of unintended consequences," you will need to go to Canberra and show ministers, shadow ministers, committees and crossbenchers how those unintended consequences will do more harm than good.

Next steps

You’ll need to do two things to ensure your success with this strategy.

First, engage a non-partisan, non-aligned, independent (however you want to put it) lobbyist to advise and work with you. Preferably someone who has experience working with the major parties, committees, and crossbenches of the parliaments of Australia. If you don’t know anyone, feel free to reach out via this link – I’m sure I can recommend someone.

Secondly, book your flights to Canberra as soon as the parliamentary sitting dates are known. If you’re not down there, meeting with the new ministers and crossbenchers, building relationships and getting onto a first name basis with them, you won’t be in the game.

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