Starting today the Australian polity will reshape itself to fit the priorities and philosophies of the Senate crossbenchers, who will potentially have the final say on any proposed laws rejected by both Labor and the Greens.
Following this morning’s official swearing-in of the 12 new Senators whose terms commenced on July 1, the Abbott Government is expected to test its crossbench support by attempting to bring on debate of the legislation that will scrap the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme.
The bill was not due to be considered until a Senate committee review of its details, initiated by Labor and the Greens when they still had the numbers in the Senate, reported on July 14.
However, the Government should be able to bring the matter to an earlier resolution now that Motoring Enthusiasts’ Ricky Muir has confirmed his support for the repeal of the scheme, thereby securing more than the six crossbench votes needed to fulfil one of Abbott’s signature election commitments (Muir’s, the Palmer United Party’s three votes, and those of Senators Madigan, Leyonhjelm and Day).
It appears the only concession extracted by Clive Palmer from the Government for his party’s support is a “legislated guarantee” that all the savings made from scrapping the carbon price will be passed on to consumers. At one point Palmer also canvassed the extension of this remit to large industrial users of electricity in addition to households and businesses, but it is unknown how these long-term electricity supply contracts would be varied.
A similar happy result for the Government is expected when the Senate votes on legislation to repeal the mining tax. But then it’s downhill from there.
With PUP, Leyonhjelm and Day opposed to the Government’s alternative greenhouse mitigation policy, Direct Action, the initiative is doomed unless Labor or the Greens see any political or environmental benefit in negotiating support for acceptable amendments to the scheme. This seems unlikely, with both parties having already flagged their intention to maintain the high moral ground on climate action rather than be seen to enable any version of the Government’s less than optimal alternative.
A similar fate awaits most of the budget’s savings measures including the indexation of fuel excise, the GP co-payment and changes to unemployment benefit arrangements, welfare payments and pensions.
PUP opposes these measures because they place a disproportionate burden on the disadvantaged. While Leyonhjelm and most likely Day will support the GP co-payment and deregulation of university fees, they will oppose the fuel excise change and any other measures they believe are simply increases to taxation.
Xenophon and Madigan seem disinclined to support the budget either.
In spite of this wall of negativity, the Government is putting on a surprisingly brave face and has indicated a willingness to negotiate. Those of a Machiavellian bent may wonder whether this unnatural cheeriness reveals the budget was actually meant to be an ambit claim, giving the Government some room to back down without having to abandon measures altogether. If this is the case, it seems Coalition strategists seriously underestimated the capacity of Palmer to play his own brand of ruthless politics.
PUP’s populism may know no bounds, either in logic or consistency, but the other crossbenchers are no less committed to pursuing their political objectives.
Leyonheljm and Day have an agreement to vote the same on economic matters, suggesting Leyonhjelm’s free market and low-taxing, low-regulating, small-government philosophies will have precedence. But on societal matters, Day is much more akin to the staunch social conservative Madigan, who’s opposed to abortion as well as marriage equality.
Madigan sees former senator Brian Harradine, whose support for the partial sale of Telstra was dependent on policies that restricted women’s reproductive rights, as a role model.
This is of less a concern while the PUP voting bloc, including Muir, stands firm.
But if one PUP Senator were to break away from the eponymous party and become an independent – and the book has already started on loose cannon Jacqui Lambie taking that honour – then the horse trading game would change considerably.
In this scenario, substantial time and effort would have to be devoted by Government negotiators enlisted to make nice with the crossbench senators but it would at least allow Abbott to break free from under the PUP’s shadow and any implication that Palmer is the one running the country.
This attendant risk is that Abbott would then become beholden to the assorted whims and idiosyncrasies of the non-PUP Senators, including the abortion-hating Madigan and the gun-loving Leyonheljm.
By dint of their independent or minor party status these Senators stand proudly outside the mainstream, giving disgruntled voters a vicarious thrill each time the crossbenchers enthusiastically jostle the major parties’ status quo.
Yet at a time when government transparency is little more than a distant memory, and the need to salvage the budget is pressing, the risk is high that these outriders’ niche demands will be met to satisfy broader legislative needs.
It will be at this point that voters realise that crossbenchers are fringe-dwellers for a reason. Their views don’t always represent those of the Australian majority, and often run completely counter to what most voters believe is best for the nation.