June 26, 2008 / 6:07 AM / 10 years ago

Independents become power players in Aussie Senate

By James Grubel

CANBERRA, June 26 (Reuters) - An anti-gambling advocate and a Christian-backed, family values politician became Australia’s new power brokers on Thursday, when conservative parties lost control over the upper house Senate.

The final day of the current parliamentary session on Thursday ended the one-seat majority of the Liberal and National parties, which last week blocked A$280 million ($269 million) worth of the centre-left Labor government’s budget bills.

From July 1, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will need to negotiate with two independent senators — incoming anti-gambling Senator Nick Xenophon and family values advocate Steve Fielding — to be sure of passing key planks of his first-term agenda.

"I’m available to talk to the major parties," Xenophon told Reuters on Thursday, adding he aimed to work "constructively" but would look at each piece of legislation on its merits.

"I expect there will be some long nights," he said.

The change in power is likely to lead to an increase in the number of parliamentary inquiries into contentious legislation as Xenophon and Fielding decide how to use their swing votes.

"I think you will see closer scrutiny," Fielding told Reuters. "The Senate works best when you have someone in the middle, looking at the issues on their merits."

Fielding, from the Family First party, has been in parliament for three years. A strong champion of family values, he wants the government to slash taxes on rising petrol prices and to force banks to cut transaction fees and account penalties.

He has written to Rudd to outline his agenda and approach to key government plans, including compensating householders from higher energy costs when carbon trading starts from 2010.

WATER, GAMBLING AGENDA

Xenophon, who takes his seat from July 1, arrives in Canberra after 10 years in the South Australian state parliament, where he fought the spread of slot machines and campaigned to fix Australia’s ailing River Murray.

He wants national laws to ban automatic teller machines from gaming venues to help people with gambling problems.

But his first priority, Xenophon said, will be to force the government to fix the Murray River, which is suffering low inflows due to years of drought, rising salinity and the over-allocation of water for irrigation.

"Water has to be a priority," he said. "If nothing is done about the lower lakes, we’re looking at an economic and environmental catastrophe."

The Murray River and the Murray-Darling basin are Australia’s food bowl, covering an area the size of France and Spain, and accounting for 41 percent of agricultural produce.

Rudd’s Labor Party was swept to power at elections last November, ending almost 12 years of conservative rule. But new senators, including Xenophon, do not take up their seats until July 1 this year.

($1=A$1.04) (Editing by Ben Tan)



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