In two weeks Australian federal politics will shift slightly on its axis. The balance of power in the Senate will move from being the sole domain of the Australian Greens to also being shared by a motley collection of mostly conservative senators.
In theory the Greens have enough votes to join with the Coalition Government to pass proposed legislation, but in practice they’re unlikely to do so.
Branded on their psyches would be the memory of the Australian Democrats being made to pay dearly for what was seen by voters as an act of collusion with the Howard government when the minor party secured concessions to pass the GST.
The more recent and direct opprobrium received by the Greens for helping the Government to abolish the debt ceiling would also be fresh on their minds.
In fact there’s next to no benefit for the Greens in cooperating with the Abbott Government, not even on policies that are ostensibly in line with their philosophical positions such as paid parental leave and fuel excise. This is why Greens Leader Christine Milne has a clearly marked exit plan for both proposals, aimed at allowing her senators to retain credibility while essentially walking away from party policy.
Having already secured a drop from $150,000 to $100,000 in the upper limit for Prime Minister Abbott’s proposed paid parental leave, Milne has now completely backed away by reserving her party’s decision until the detail of the scheme is known. Milne may even be spared from having to disown PPL if the Nationals succeed in distorting the workplace benefit into another form of welfare for farm-based stay at home mothers.
The Greens leader is on less secure political ground with the Government’s proposal to re-introduce indexation to fuel excise. Milne’s criticism of the tax being hypothecated into road-building instead of public transport ignores the fact that at least one major form of public transport requires modern and safe road networks. It also dismisses those people in rural, regional and remote Australia who have limited access to public transport and continue to endure poor quality roads.
Again, Milne has reserved her party’s decision on fuel excise indexation until the detail is known. But judging from her comments on the weekend, the Greens leader’s exit plan is to demand the introduction of mandatory fuel efficiency standards instead.
The Abbott Government won’t impose a new and costly regulatory impost on what is left of the diminishing Australian car manufacturing industry, so Milne will be provided with her other escape route.
Come July and the new Senate, the Greens may be shunted from centre stage but they’re not about to slip silently into the night. The configuration of the new Senate may actually favour the minor party, transferring much of the responsibility for sealing devilish pacts with the Government to the rest of the crossbench senators and leaving the Greens to return to being a party of protest.
Hence the latest “Bust the Budget” rally held in Melbourne with prominent involvement by Greens MPs and candidates for the upcoming state election.
This also explains the latest Greens’ tactic, flagged by Milne this past weekend, to bring on consideration of the proposed legislation to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation while the Greens still have the balance of power, so that it can be defeated again.
Such a defeat would provide the Abbott Government with the trigger needed to call a double dissolution election. It appears that the Greens, having provided the means by which Abbott could call an election, would then call him a lame duck (or perhaps even accuse him of not having the ticker) until he does so.
This appears to be the basis for Greens MP Adam Bandt sounding eerily like former opposition leader Abbott, by calling for another election and suggesting that Australia could have a new prime minister by Christmas.
However, Abbott won’t be pressured into holding a double dissolution election and he can’t be forced to do so. Even if Labor reversed its historical opposition to the blocking of supply and stopped the appropriation bills in the Senate, Abbott would still only be required to hold a House of Representatives election. Incidentally, the Greens don’t support blocking supply either.
What is more likely is that Abbott will attempt to pass the most unpopular of his proposed changes through the Senate, and once they’ve been twice rejected he will hold these in abeyance. If the polls turn back in his favour, Abbott then has the ability to call a double dissolution election and, on the re-attainment of government, pass all the outstanding double dissolution triggers through the joint sitting of parliament that can be held following a DD election if the senate remains uncooperative.*
So in short, a double dissolution election would be a high stakes game for everyone involved.
The Coalition would risk losing government. The major parties would risk losing seats to the minors, micros and independents. And anyone opposed to the double dissolution triggers would risk them becoming law.