News & Current Affairs
30 August 2014
by Peter Brent
CAN SENATE BE UNBLOCKED?
ACCOUNTS of Senate budget shenanigans tend to cast the Greens in a minor role. It’s generally Clive Palmer reckons this, or Jacqui Lambie says that, or the odd David Leyonhjelm utterance.
That’s because the Greens have taken themselves out of consideration by putting on the record their unequivocal opposition to so many of the government’s measures.
Yet unlike the Palmer United Party, the Greens have sufficient Senate numbers to guarantee passage of any piece of government legislation.
Last week Greens leader Christine Milne decided to deal her party in to deliberations.
The Abbott government had challenged Senators opposed to its revenue measures to come up with alternative ones, so Milne put pen to paper, stuffed paper in envelopes and popped them in the mail.
But she sent them to Bill Shorten, Clive Palmer and the eight cross-benchers. That’s right, not to anyone in the government. The goal, she reckoned, was for non-government Senators to find common ground.
Now, the idea of all those parties reaching agreement on anything is far-fetched, but even if they did there would be no point. Any changes to the budget have to go back to the House of Representatives, where the government still holds around two-thirds of the seats.
I think we can call Milne’s announcement a headline generator, a stunt.
If the Greens weren’t so stubbornly opposed to most things the government does, in some cases (such as petrol excise indexation and the deficit levy) it seems just because it’s the Abbott government proposing it, they could exercise more power and influence.
Presumably one motivation for steering clear of them is the curse of Meg Lees. The then Democrat leader’s 1999 deal with the Howard government on the GST is seen as the beginning of the end for that minor party. (It may or may not have been; perhaps the end was nigh anyway.)
The Labor opposition for its part has adopted a position of when-in-doubt-oppose because that’s what Tony Abbott did to them when they were in government, and they’re still impressed with how well that worked, how he played with their minds.
That leaves the the publicity-seeking Palmer. The government has 33 Senators in the 76-strong chamber and needs six of the eight cross-benchers to achieve a majority. When Labor and the Greens oppose, PUP’s three is a roadblock to that majority. (If the three vote together against the government, Ricky Muir is superfluous.)
What can the government do about PUP? They would love to see the party disintegrate. Even peeling off one or two and leaving them as a bloc of just two would open the numbers equation up and create opportunities.
But how to achieve that? They can’t compete with Clive’s money, his lavishing helicopter rides and other treats.
On the other hand, a Senator’s base salary is $195 thousand, plus perks, and for most of the PUPs this would represent serous, unprecedented income.
And they are secure in the job for six years.
The only way their employment can be terminated early is with a double dissolution. Even if they were re-elected at a DD, they would run the risk of having to go to election again in 2016. (See Antony Green on re-establishment of Senate rotations after a double dissolution.)
This is the only stick I can think of at the government’s disposal, and it’s a not a very sturdy one given the Coalition’s political stocks.
More carrots are needed instead.
And Clive might lose his seat of Fairfax in 2016, or decide before then that this formal politics game has become boring and quit parliament.
The Abbott government would no doubt love to see that. But it’s difficult to think of any legal enticements they could offer to achieve this outcome.