The resumption of Parliament after the winter recess will see the Democratic Labor Party’s Senator John Madigan give his first speech. He has already asked a question – on defence.
The DLP, which emerged out of the Labor split in the mid-1950s, lost all its sitting senators at the 1974 double dissolution election and the party was formally wound up in 1978. However, some of the children and grandchildren of those who had formed the party never really accepted the decision, so it continued to contest occasional elections.
In recent years there have been some breakthroughs. In 2006, Peter Kavanagh won a seat for the DLP in the Victorian Legislative Council. Last August, John Madigan won the sixth Senate vacancy in Victoria with more than 2 per cent of the primary vote. Such results are not uncommon since the number of senators for each state was increased to 12 in the 1980s. Kerry Nettle won a NSW Senate vacancy in 2001 with less than 5 per cent of the vote.
Madigan has received very little media attention, even in his home state. The DLP’s social conservatism is unfashionable and there is a view that Madigan will play no significant role in the Senate now that the Greens hold the balance of power in their own right.
This latter point is almost certainly true – at least until July 1, 2014, when the senators successful at the election scheduled for late 2013 take their places. This assumes, of course, that there will be no double dissolution before then.
There is a prevailing assumption that if the Coalition wins the next election, as the polls indicate, then the Greens will continue to hold the balance of power and may combine with Labor to thwart Tony Abbott’s intention of dismantling the carbon tax. But like all assumptions, this is a theory based on numerous variables.
If Julia Gillard and Labor do not recover and the Coalition wins a large majority at the next election, there are several scenarios. The Liberals and Nationals might win enough Senate vacancies to have a narrow working majority in the Senate. It is also possible that the Coalition could make inroads into Labor’s numbers in the Senate without winning an absolute majority in the chamber. If this were to be the case, then an Abbott government might be able to get legislation through the Senate with the support of Madigan or the South Australian independent, Senator Nick Xenophon, (assuming he is re-elected next time around) – or both.
If this scenario eventuated, then Madigan and Xenophon might play a similar role for an Abbott government as Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine and Queensland ex-Labor independent Mal Colston played with respect to the Howard government. This would make them as politically important as Bob Brown and Christine Milne are today.
We know a lot about Xenophon, but what about Madigan? Born into a Catholic family, Madigan belonged to a youth group run by the National Civic Council founder, B.A. Santamaria, in Melbourne. Madigan did an apprenticeship in welding at the Newport Railways Workshop in Melbourne and he became a blacksmith and boilermaker. This makes him one of the few members of Parliament who has a background as a tradie.
Last month Madigan addressed the Inaugural Jack Kane Dinner at North Ryde. Kane was the DLP senator for NSW from mid-1971 to mid-1974 and a former DLP federal secretary. The audience was anything but inner-city latte types. Madigan addressed the dinner with one of his children on each side of the podium.
On economics, Madigan was very much old Labor – of the kind advocated by the likes of Ben Chifley and Clyde Cameron. He told an enthusiastic audience that ”a country is what a country makes”. In short, Madigan believes in Australian industry, even if it has to be sustained by a degree of protection.
On a carbon tax, however, Madigan is not new Labor. He spoke movingly about old people in his home town of Ballarat who frequent shopping malls in the city’s hot summers and cold winters because they cannot pay rising energy bills.
In one of the few media discussions on Madigan, academic Rick Kuhn told the ABC Bush Telegraph program that upwardly-mobile Catholics associated themselves with the DLP in the 1950s and ’60s. This is not the case. The DLP was very much a middle class and working class party then – Madigan’s Senate victory suggests that it remains so today.
No doubt some members of the press gallery will find reason to make fun of Madigan’s social conservatism. But it is unlikely that senior figures in Labor or the Coalition will do likewise.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.