News National Is Shorten burning bridges with the crossbenchers?

Is Shorten burning bridges with the crossbenchers?

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Calling someone an extremist is not the best way to win a friend.

As Labor strategists work behind the scenes to build a close working relationship with the new crossbench senators, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is abusing them.

The 18-member crossbench will comprise members of the Palmer United Party, the Australian Greens, Family First, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Democratic Labour Party and independent Nick Xenophon.

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Shorten has described them as extremists and populists. Or, in the case of Palmer’s party, “PUPulists”.

“All this makes it harder for the serious mainstream of Australian politics to focus on what matters,” he says.

The Labor leader has some grounds for concern.

Clive Palmer
Leader of a powerful senate pack, Clive Palmer. Photo: AAP

So-called microparties can get away with promising almost anything without the prospect of ever having to deliver it.

Their policies include flat taxes, legalising hard drugs, owning guns for self-defence and unfettered use of four-wheel-drives in national parks.

As Pauline Hanson’s One Nation demonstrated, they can burn brightly – fuelled by cynicism about politics – then flame out when the major parties get serious about their leadership, policies and promises.

But Labor will need some friends among the mostly centre-right senators to block what it says are unfair budget measures and retain the best parts of the Rudd-Gillard government legacy.

Labor insiders say the party is taking the new senators seriously as they grapple with the complexities of legislation and procedure with limited resources.

Building constructive relationships has been a natural part of Labor’s work in the Senate in government and opposition for decades, one told AAP.

However, saying one thing in public and another in private won’t do Labor any favours.

Former coalition senator Gary Humphries says it should not be hard for the government to find common ground with many of the new senators, some of whom are former members of the Liberal Party.

The government’s job will be much easier if Labor alienates the “extremists”.