19 March 2016
by Anne Summers
Beware the Ides of March
Senate reform voting deals may come back to haunt the government and Greens
The repercussions of the deals done to push through Senate voting reforms are yet to be felt.
It was in another Senate, oceans away and more than two thousand years ago that the brutal assassination of a political leader by his Senate colleagues occurred on the Ides of March.
What happened in the Australian Senate last Tuesday, March 15, was hardly of the same order but nor was it the inconsequential circus depicted by most commentators. Some very serious decisions were taken that daythat will have lasting significances for the two main plotters – the government and the Greens – which may well in the future have them rue their failure to ''beware the Ides of March''.
Last Tuesday the government and the Greens, supported by independent Nick Xenophon, agreed to give absolute priority to reform of the Senate voting system. In other words, they agreed to refuse to resolve any other issue, however important to their constituents, until they had secured their own futures.
They opted to not just preserve, but to expand, their current power bases.
Once the Senate reforms were passed and the government proceeded with its double dissolution, each of the plotters would benefit.
The Greens and Xenophon are likely to increase their numbers, probably at the expense of Labor, as they will need only a half-quota to secure Senate seats.
The government rids itself of (most of) the pesky crossbench senators and has a far better chance of passing bills that have been held up for two years or more.
They will improve their revenue position and be able to introduce policies, such as cuts to paid parental leave, that have to date been vetoed by the much-maligned "unrepresentative swill" – Senators who, it is asserted, were elected by virtue of "preference harvesting" rather than voter intent.(Never mind that in the last election government minister Senator Michaelia Cash received 130 fewer first preference votes than Ricky Muir, the Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator who is being portrayed as the exemplar of what's wrong with the current system.)
The new, reformed Senate will be a far more predictable chamber. The mavericks will have been legislated away and the upper house will revert to its former role as pretty much a rubber stamp on whatever the House of Representatives decides to pass.
But at what cost?
It has perhaps not yet sunk in with core constituents but they will pay a price for this new improved Senate.
The Greens sided with the government on Tuesday to gag a cheeky motion from Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm to bring on debate on their Marriage Equality Amendment ill 2013. They then went to great pains to head off the likely outrage of their supporters for appearing to renege on their "every Green, every vote, every time" pledge on same-sex marriage by saying that the bill would be debated Thursday.
Trouble is, that "debate" was for two hours and 20 minutes only, in the time normally allocated to private senator's business, and there was no vote on the bill.
When Senator Leyonhjelm made one more valiant effort earlier in the day – before the debate – to suspend standing orders so the Senate could vote on marriage equality, the Greens voted against his motion.
There was no vote – and there now will not be one until after the plebiscite.
Whenever that is.
Supporters of same-sex marriage have yet to digest this. How will they respond when the realisation hits?
Et tu Richard?
The government's business supporters are likely to be similarly enraged when they understand that Senate reform appears to have come at the cost of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill that was supposed to serve as a key trigger for the double dissolution.
Like the Greens with marriage equality, the government preferred to prioritise the Senate reforms and resisted a ploy by Senator Muir to bring on debate on the ABCC. That bill will now have to find space on the crowded legislative agenda when Parliament resumes on May 10.
It is unlikely to be debated, let alone voted on, before May 11 – the last day on which the Prime Minister can call a double dissolution.
The government has two other twice-rejected bills that it can use as triggers but its credibility will suffer.
The ABCC was meant to be a cornerstone of its industrial relations policy. It is also, as the business media reported excitedly on Wednesday, intended to be a welcome mechanism for reducing costs on building sites, making infrastructure projects more cost-effective.
Yet the government has failed to re-introduce the bill.
It has preferenced Senate reform over core policy.
"The absence of the ABCC bills [as a trigger for the double dissolution] would point to a government unwilling to stand by its convictions," conservative columnist Paul Kelly wrote earlier this month in The Australian. "For Turnbull, that accusation would be extremely dangerous. The government would be creating a double dissolution for its electoral convenience but not for its policy beliefs."
This is likely to cause a huge ruckus within the Liberal Party room where the Abbott forces will attack Turnbull's failure to capitalise on the Heydon Royal Commission findings into trade union malfeasance.
And big business, already cheesed off by the government's about-face on the effects test in competition policy this week, is likely to be furious.
For a Prime Minister whose approval rating is plummeting, the alarm bells should be ringing.
Malcolm Turnbull might not have a haruspex like Spurinna, who warned Julius Caesar his life was in danger, but he does have the polls to give him a reading on his political mortality.
"The reality is a leader that opens up debates then closes them down," writes Essential Media's Peter Lewis of the latest poll in The Drum this week, "who calls for a contest of ideas then slams his opponents with scare campaigns when they engage; who lacks the will to take on his own party on the issues that had previously defined him."