The Albanese government has defended its cut to crossbench MPs’ and senators’ staff, despite suggestions some minor parties could block bills in retaliation.
On Friday Labor revealed that crossbench parliamentarians will receive just one additional adviser, down from four under the Morrison government, prompting One Nation and senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock to threaten government bills.
The education minister, Jason Clare, revealed on Sunday Labor’s staffing allocation had also taken a $1.5m “haircut”, while the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, argued that giving crossbenchers one adviser more than Labor backbenchers was “fair and reasonable”.
All MPs and senators receive four electorate staff, predominantly to deal with constituent matters, while crossbenchers in the last parliament received four extra advisers, in recognition of the higher workload scrutinising legislation without support from party colleagues.
The independent MP Zali Steggall accused Anthony Albanese of showing his “true character” with the decision – “dismissive of our communities and arrogant”.
“[He is] no different to [Scott] Morrison,” she said of the prime minister on Twitter on Friday.
❌@AlboMP didn’t mind the Xbench having staff to put up alternative policies & push for anti corruption & climate & hold the Morrison Govt to account but feels differently now. We are seeing his true character: dismissive of our communities & arrogant. No different to Morrison.
— 🌏 Zali Steggall MP (@zalisteggall) June 24, 2022
One Nation has suggested that if crossbenchers did not have time to consider bills properly, then “the default position that should be taken by every independent and minor party should be to reject government legislation”.
Although Labor has a majority of 77 in the lower house, in the Senate it needs either the Coalition or the Greens plus one crossbench senator to pass its legislation.
Lambie told the Nine papers she was “fuming” over the decision.
“If we can’t go through the legislation [with advisers], how can we vote on it? I’m not voting for something that I can’t go through,” she reportedly said.
Pocock echoed the sentiment, saying: “If I don’t understand legislation and can’t get across it, if it’s complex or controversial, it’s going to be very hard to vote for the government’s legislation.”
But Clare defended the decision, telling Sky News: “If you’re a Labor MP, or Liberal MP or a Nat, you get four staff.
“If you’re a crossbench MP, you get eight. That seems to me to be a bit out of whack.”
Clare said it was “pretty fair” that crossbenchers got one extra adviser, and noted Labor would also boost resourcing of the parliamentary library.
Clare revealed that the total salary bill of government staff had been cut by $1.5m, and opposition staff by $350,000.
Across Labor’s 23 cabinet members, that would amount to a cut of just $65,000 in each office, a cut that can likely be achieved without loss to headcount by hiring an adviser at a lower classification.
Clare said people “come to this job not for the pay but for the opportunity it provides to make a difference”.
“Everyone is taking a haircut here, whether it is government staff, opposition staff ... Most Australians would say, ‘you’ve been elected, now knuckle down and do the job’.”
Chalmers told the ABC’s Insiders it was a “surprise” to him to learn that “some [crossbench] backbenchers get twice as many staff as other [government] backbenchers”.
Chalmers said it was “not surprising” that MPs wanted more resources to do their job, but the allocation was “not unprecedented”.
“What we’ve recognised with the crossbench is that there are some additional pressures on crossbench members. That’s why they get extra staff resources.
“But I don’t think it’s reasonable or fair for one backbench MP in one electorate to get twice as many staff as a backbench MP in the electorate next door. That’s what this commonsense proposal reflects.”
The deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, told Sky News that Albanese was “looking to cut costs” and noted Clare’s “rather unsympathetic view” of the crossbench concerns.
“I recall in 2010 at the hung parliament then prime minister Julia Gillard gave the crossbench an additional staff member.
“Malcolm Turnbull then increased that to three. Scott Morrison, as prime minister, increased it to four.”
Ley said she took a “slightly more sympathetic view” than Labor, noting crossbench MPs and senators had to “look at every piece of legislation and get across numerous different issues” without the support of a party structure.
“I do understand, it’s a pretty high workload.”
The Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, told reporters in Brisbane the Coalition’s allocation was consistent with Labor’s in opposition.
Guardian Australia understands if crossbench MPs and senators had been allowed four extra staff each, they would have received 72 staff in total, compared with 102 for the opposition.