A fight over their staffing allowances threatens to undermine Anthony Albanese’s relationships with an expanded cross bench and his reform agenda, MPs have warned.
The government advised MPs last week of plans to reduce Parliament’s staffing budget, a decision which fell hardest on cross bench MPs who will now be entitled to one instead of four political advisors.
With the PM out of the country, cross bench Senators warned that the decision would affect their ability to vote on bills – a pointed warning given the government needs at least some of their support to pass legislation.
“You want to be careful and make friends, not enemies,” said Bob Kattter, a veteran North Queensland independent MP and friend of Mr Albanese. “To kick it off by making not one but 16 enemies in the bloody Parliament who are not on the side of the Liberal Party doesn’t seem to be real clever.
“Every Parliament was a couple of people.”
But the government said on Monday that it was acting to restore balance to staffing arrangements that have become unequal over the past decade.
All MPs receive four electorate staff, who are responsible for keeping contact with their constituents.
Up until Mr Albanese’s decision they had an additional four advisory staff. MPs had budgets allowing for two advisors and two assistant advisors who would be focused on matters coming before the parliament or dealing with the media.
Providing special dispensation for members of the cross bench dates back to the 2010 minority government. As part of a deal struck with Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Windsor independent MPs were allocated two advisors.
Tony Abbott cut back on that allowance as part of a general drive towards budget cutbacks.
Soon after Malcolm Turnbull secured the prime ministership he wrote to cross benchers advising them that he would be allocating them an additional staffer (relations with the upper house had grown strained).
“Independent senators have much detailed policy and legislative information to consider; often without the day-to-day support available to the major political parties,” Mr Turnbull wrote.
During the most recent Parliament advisor numbers reached their current level.
Labor says the move will help restore balance to staffing allocations.
Assistant Ministers only have two additional staffers additional to their electorate office despite being partly responsible for a portfolio.
Backbench MPs do not receive additional staff.
“I just don’t cop this line that well, you know, ‘it’s because they do more work’,” said Finance Minister Katy Gallagher. “Every member of parliament does work. Every member of parliament sits on committees, every member of parliament looks at legislation.”
The government reckons it has shaved $1.5 million off its own staffing costs.
But crossbench MPs are not taking the cuts lightly and in the upper house incoming Senator David Pocock said the government’s agenda would be slowed down by a reduction to advisor numbers.
The Greens have also been privately fuming over staffing. The party reckons new arrangements will leave them with an effective 40 per cent reduction in staff numbers, or the same number of staff they previously had to advise a greatly expanded party room.
Labor has a one-seat majority in the lower house.