Anthony Albanese is staring down the prospect of a “Senate strike” over cuts to parliamentary staff, suggesting crossbenchers are being more “constructive” in private.
The prime minister brushed off the controversy created by Labor’s decision to cut crossbench MPs and senators’ staffing allocation from eight to five each, despite the United Australia Party joining the ranks of those criticising the decision.
On Friday Labor revealed that crossbench parliamentarians will receive just one adviser in addition to four electorate office staff, down from four under the Morrison government, prompting One Nation and senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock to threaten government bills.
But despite emotions ranging from disappointment to rage, Pocock has signalled a Senate go-slow is more likely than a strike, saying he wants to remain “constructive” and will only withhold his vote when he can’t decide on the merits of legislation.
Albanese defended the cut, arguing that the increase to four extra staff was “very new” and “fairness and equity” meant crossbench MPs shouldn’t have twice the staff of government and opposition MPs.
“Labor wasn’t a part of those arrangements and aren’t aware of what their transaction details were,” he told reporters on Sunday evening.
Albanese noted assistant ministers only get two additional staff, arguing it was not “sustainable” for crossbench MPs to have more.
“But crossbench members, we’ve been conscious that they do need extra support,” he said. “They will receive an extra staff member in addition to their entitlement, and that staff member will be able to travel right around the country with their member of parliament.”
On the prospect of disruption in parliament, Albanese said that “the public comments from some of the crossbench members have not been echoed by the ones that I’ve spoken to one-on-one who want to be constructive”.
In an interview with ABC radio, Albanese suggested the increase under Morrison had been secret, noting “I didn’t know, and I can’t find any great record of any publicity” for crossbenchers having double the staff of backbench MPs.
Albanese accused some crossbench MPs of “misconceptions” including “some [who] have said that we don’t want our electorate officers to have to do parliamentary work”.
“Well, the fact is that people who work as electorate officers often do parliamentary work.”
The finance minister, Katy Gallagher, said that through “respectful and constructive engagement” with the crossbench, the government hoped to avoid a “go slow or refusal to engage on legislation”.
She said a compromise to increase the allocation from one to two would be up to Albanese but “our starting point was four … is unsustainable”.
Ralph Babet, the newly elected senator for the United Australia Party in Victoria, told Guardian Australia that “cutting independent and minor party parliamentary staff allocation by 75% will make it very difficult for us to be able to do our jobs effectively”.
“The prime minister is essentially pumping the brakes on our ability to scrutinise the government and the legislation they may propose. We call on the prime minister to review his decision,” he said.
Earlier, Pocock told ABC News Breakfast it was a “such a disappointing start” that the government’s first interaction with the crossbench was cutting staff that allow them to represent their communities.
“The cynical take is that the PM knows how little sympathy people have for politicians and their staff, and so this is a way to actually minimise the crossbench [influence].”
Asked about the prospect of blocking government bills, Pocock replied: “I’m there to be constructive. I’ve said that publicly. I’ve made that known to the prime minister’s office.
“Having said that, talking to senators who have been in a similar position in the past, they’ve told me it will basically be impossible to be able to be across all the legislation.”
Pocock said while he would not want to see a deliberate delaying of legislation, if crossbenchers do not have the staff to get across all the legislation put before the Senate, “that’s clearly going to then slow down the government’s legislative agenda.”
Any disruption of the government’s Senate program would require cooperation from the Greens, who have also been critical of the staffing cut, and the Coalition, which has expressed limited sympathy.
On Monday the independent MP Zali Steggall said there was “nothing secret” about the staffing allocations, which were “on the record” in documents tabled in parliament.
“There were no deals and [House of Representatives] crossbench MPs and senators were all treated equally,” Steggall tweeted. “[The government] saying they didn’t know or realise is disingenuous.”
Steggall argued that, given the government’s staff of 463 (mostly ministerial advisers) were available to all MPs, Labor backbenchers had the equivalent of six additional staff each to access in other colleagues’ offices.
Steggall said the parliamentary library “doesn’t give advice on effect of proposed bills” and its “staff isn’t available out of hours and on short notice to respond to government bills”.