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Family First and the rise of Senator Bob Day

By Haydon Manning - posted Thursday, 17 April 2014

From July 1 the new Senate will be provoke close watch and undoubtedly endless commentary over its political hue. While attention focuses mainly on the bellicose machinations of Clive Palmer and his apparent control over four Senators, the rise of the Family First Party [FFP] travels well below the radar. If I was to place a 'futures' punt on which of the rightwing parties now present in the Senate will remain so in a decade's time, I'd be inclined to suggest FFP is the safer bet.

In South Australia FFP is now firmly established with two members in the 22 member State upper-house, and with Bob Day's election to the Senate the party is set to further consolidate its slow but steady progress. The recent re-election of Dennis Hood to the South Australian upper house will see FFP complete 20 consecutive years by the time his term expires in 2022.

Senator Xenophon may well attract more national attention but with Day's election there is a chance that may begin to change. Day is likely to be a far more accomplished and articulate Senator than was the case with the rather enigmatic former FFP Senator, Steve Fielding.


Family First was founded in 2001 by pastor, Andrew Evans, of the evangelical Assemblies of God parish in Adelaide's northern suburbs. Evans won an upper house seat at the 2002 poll and handed over his seat to former Liberal Party MP and Minister in the Olsen Government, Robert Brokenshire 18 months out from the 2010 State poll. Brokenshire actively courts morning radio talk back and his presence in the upper house is notable for its polish and diligence. On primary votes both Hood and Brokenshire manage about half an upper house quota and with the support of Liberal Party and other rightwing micro parties they comfortably secured, albeit it late in the count, one of the eleven upper house seats at the 2010 and 2014 elections.

On the back of Hood's and Brokenshire's solid local profile Bob Day was able to build his 2013 campaign, backed in part by his own financial clout. With a level of professionalism that contrasts to the wild 'spin' surrounding Palmer's foray into national politics. He has an opportunity to shape FFP as the "sensible" right of centre alternative for conservative voters disillusioned with Abbott Government. But there is also cause to caution against such a prospect and that has little to do with what Palmer United might achieve.

Day joined FFP in 2008 after missing pre-selection for the Liberal Party when upon Alexander Downer's retirement a by-election was announced for Mayo. In 2007 he contested the inner metropolitan seat of Makin but faired rather poorly and this, among other factors, spoiled his prospect for Liberal pre-selection.

A successful self-made businessman with a strong commitment to a range of charitable causes he brings to the Party a more clearly articulated right-wing perspective on economic policy and, in particular industrial relations. Day's position as Party Chairman and as significant party financier has seen party's policy shift to the right. The question is, will the shift help or hinder FFP's electoral fortunes over the next decade or so?

In my assessment FFP are significant minor party, a fact not well understood outside South Australia. With Day's election and the Party's entrenched presence in the SA Parliament's Legislative Council it is possible that in roads may be made in other states over the next decade. When one looks at the bleeding of major party votes to the growing plethora of 'other parties', the majority of whom are right-of-centre, it is not too far fetched to see FFP evolve into a "party of the right" drawing disaffected voters from mainly the Coalition parties, but also given Labor's endemic problems a proportion from that quarter as well.

Day's pedigree as a warrior committed to causes dear to the rightwing of national politics is, arguably, unsurpassed in the national parliament. His writing on a host of topics abound on the Party's website and are reflective of his past and current chairmanship and directorships of HR Nichols Society, Bert Kelly Research Centre, the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies. Clearly Day is an individual with depth of intellect not yet fully recognized and one that stands in sharp contrast with Steve Fielding.


The question is, will Day 'scare the horses' with his neo-liberal economic world view? He is not a populist like Palmer and may well trump Palmer's crew for intellect, clarity of vision and, more than likely, sheer hard work on assessing legislation that comes before The Senate. As his profile evolves he will probably appeal to the Liberal Party's conservative inclined voters, but his deep and abiding enthusiasm for labour market reform presents a risk of appearing uncaring toward classic family economic concerns. If the IR debate is opened up, which I suspect the Abbott Government must do at some point, expect Day to be a vocal advocate of a robust return to the Howard Government's 'Work Choices' agenda..

Prior to Day's ascendency FFP tended toward the mainstream consensus that government has a significant role to play in shaping 'fairness' in the workplace. For example, Fielding opposed Howard's Work Choices legislation because he believed it entertained adverse impacts on families a position close that Andrew Evans explained when I interviewed him in 2002.

Day's climate change skepticism informs all but the South Australian policy position – an interesting matter of nuance. The practical and pragmatic Hood and Brokenshire possibly detect the dangers of having a strong position on an issue that does not drive the political passions of right leaning voters as it does those on the left. Climate change skepticism simply flies in the face of national political assessment across the Western world. This makes FFP's policy for all but SA rather crude when it states that there is no 'scientific consensus'. Adopting renown climate change skeptic Professor Ian Plimer's rhetorical flourish, the policy states 'Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, it is plant food. The more crops can get of it the better they grow.'

Hood and Brockenshire's focus is overwhelmingly on typical bread and butter issues, rather than any a broader ideological crusade. I suspect they will struggle at times when fielding questions over their Federal colleague's political predilections for, as noted above, they traverse issues that tend to polarize opinion. Both MPs, while obviously conservative in inclination are quite pragmatic. They are prepared to negotiate and compromise with the Liberal Party and cross benches in the South Australian Legislative Council and, while I may not concur with their views on a range of matters, they are by any measure savvy parliamentarians.

But, no matter how hard they work, the perception of where FFP stands politically will, now be defined largely by the attention Bob Day draws and how FFP punches its chief rival, Palmer United.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Haydon Manning teaches in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide.

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