Having received over 9.5% of the Senate vote in New South Wales, the Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm has won election to the Australian Senate, with his six year term to begin next July. The 61-year-old agribusiness consultant and former vet has at different times in his life been a member of both the Labor and Liberal parties and doesn’t hesitate in identifying himself as a libertarian. I spoke recently to David and he was candid about his expectations of the new Parliament and the difficulties he has faced getting the party’s message out.
With the balance of power in the Senate swinging from The Greens to a disparate group of minor parties (including three Senators from the Palmer United Party), David recognises that he and his fellow crossbenchers will have a significant degree of leverage. Although he feels that the Liberals ‘are still in denial’ about needing his vote, he imagines that the Coalition will want to keep as much of the crossbench on side as possible. He won’t rule out wandering off and supporting Labor and The Greens from time to time, arguing that as one person, the best way for him to make a difference is by leveraging the fact that the Government needs his vote.
David is optimistic about being able to work constructively with his fellow crossbenchers and has already spoken with SA independent Nick Xenophon. He hopes that the crossbench can be reasonably pragmatic so that even if they have to take small steps back at times, they’ll ‘take big steps forward’. Unlike many libertarians I’ve encountered in New Zealand and Australia, he clearly understands the need to pick his battles, understands practical politics and has himself vowed to be practical.
Having seen the difficulties faced by the Act Party following its confidence and supply agreement with National in New Zealand, David wants to avoid the LDP getting into a position where it is limited in its ability to criticise the Government. Vowing to ‘well and truly’ vote against any ‘egregious statist sins’ the Coalition Government may entertain, the LDP is seeking to make it clear that ‘the Government is the Government and that we’re the Liberal Democrats and they’re not the same thing’. Despite wanting to make such a distinction, David feels there is ‘a degree of sympathy’ within the Liberal Party for the LDP’s small government position and thinks they may even be able to set the agenda at times, not unlike the Act Party taking the lead on charter schools.
The LDP advocates for what it terms ‘free immigration agreements’ such as the arrangement between Australia and New Zealand – David explaining that he doesn’t believe that such agreements should have to conform to a ‘cookie cutter formula’ and sees no reason why New Zealanders in Australia shouldn’t be eligible to entitlements that Australians can receive in New Zealand. Although he doesn’t want to see people bleeding in the streets and is in favour of some emergency assistance being available, David’s general principle would see non-citizens ineligible for welfare unless under a free immigration agreement with reciprocal arrangements.
Describing himself as ‘kind of a home grown first principles libertarian’ he says he has resented being told what to do his whole life and that ‘as my wife will attest, the best way to get me to do the opposite is to tell me I have to do something’. Having failed to register for national service, he says he would have been subject to automatic call-up if the Government hadn’t changed in 1972. David says it was ‘just reprehensible that people could be dragged off against their will into the military, even without the fact that they might then get sent off to Vietnam and shot’. It was such a ‘loathsome’ example of government compulsion that he considers it the first real influence on his political philosophy. Although citing John Stuart Mill and more recently, Milton Freidman as influences, it’s evident that it is his own experiences that have most significantly shaped his outlook. David pointed out that he remembers when abortion was illegal and when people he knew had to battle abortion laws to have choice. He’s frustrated that smoking marijuana is still illegal when ‘we all did it when we were youngsters’ and that police are still ‘running around the place pretending that they’re doing something useful for society by arresting people with marijuana in their possession’. It’s absurd he says.
I asked him about the media coverage he and the LDP had received around the election and whether he was concerned about gaining a reputation as ‘the gun-slinging Senator’ given that a significant amount of coverage focused on the firearms policies. David explained that a week or so before the election, the Liberal Party in NSW panicked, thinking the LDP would ‘steal the seat off their guy Arthur Sinodinos’ who was ranked third on the Coalition ticket. He says that the Coalition decided they needed to head off the LDP’s vote, ‘so they went to the media, friendly sources in the media and said we’d like you to do something about this party with the word Liberal in its name’. He says The Daily Telegraph then published photos of him and the party president advocating firearm change laws with the intention of discouraging people from voting for them by accident because they were first on the ticket. David says that after the election, ‘the media was all over me like a rash’ with their agenda already set by the newspaper ‘which said we’re basically gun nuts’. Despite trying to interest the press in the LDP’s policies on low tax, reduced expenditure and fiscal responsibility, what appeared most in the news were invariably his answers to the questions on guns. Although David is a fierce advocate for reform to firearms laws, he equally doesn’t want the LDP to be known only as the party that supports more liberal gun laws.
In an unpredictable looking Senate crossbench, the LDP’s first ever elected federal member looks set to be both a blessing and a curse for the Abbott Government. Having sworn not to vote for measures that will increase taxation or reduce freedom, David has drawn a line in the sand ahead of his dealings with the Coalition. Provided he sticks to his principles and doesn’t gain a reputation as ‘the Senator for guns’, David Leyonhjelm could well be the first homegrown figurehead for a libertarian renaissance in Australia. It no longer seems one can write off the Liberal Democratic Party.
I think it is great Australia has a libertarian Senator (after July 2014). Would be good to have more libertarian-leaning MPs in the New Zealand Parliament.