How far will Abbott bend to salvage the budget?

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.

Bullock and the ghosts of turncoats past

“Self-preservation is a strong motive in politics” – Mal Colston, The Odd One Out, 1975.

Other than indulging in a serious case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted, Labor’s left unions should be very careful about trying to retrospectively disendorse Senator-elect Joe Bullock or force him to step aside for the more prospective candidate, Louise Pratt.

Parliamentarians placed under similar pressure have been known to inconveniently jump ship, particularly when they’re offered attractive inducements by the other side to do so.

Federal Labor’s most notorious rat, Senator Mal Colston, was lured away by the newish Liberal PM John Howard in 1996. Colston was peeved that his own side wouldn’t nominate him to become deputy president of the Senate, a plum role he’d held previously from 1990 to 1993. So after advances from the Coalition, Colston resigned from Labor and became an independent. Later that day he was nominated by the government and duly elected as deputy president.

Colston’s defection gave Howard one of the two extra votes he needed to get government legislation through the Senate. Brian Harradine, the canny former Labor man and staunchly conservative independent Senator from Tasmania, wielded the other. Notwithstanding the price Harradine extracted for his votes, this was easier for Howard than having to negotiate with Labor, the Democrats or the Greens.

Labor didn’t take this well. They hounded the turncoat Colston for (previously forgiven and other) travel allowance indiscretions, causing him to resign from his cherished deputy president position less than a year after he regained it. He was charged with 28 counts of fraud for misusing his travel allowance, leading Howard to vow that the government would not accept the disgraced Senator’s vote in the Senate (although this undertaking proved to be short-lived). Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Colston was never prosecuted for his alleged misdeeds.

If you thought one unedifying saga involving a MP with questionable party loyalty and an appetite for the spoils of office would be a salutary lesson for all concerned, then think again.

Proving that Labor can just as easily play this game, the Gillard government tried to turn not one but two disaffected Liberals to shore up its numbers in 2011. Initially Labor tried to entice Queensland Liberal Alex Somlyay with the deputy speaker position in return for his support in no confidence votes and budget bills. When this strategy failed, Labor’s sights moved to Somlyay’s nemesis and neighbour in an adjacent electorate, Peter Slipper.

Slipper was already subject to allegations of travel allowance misuse and under pressure from former Howard government minister, Mal Brough, who was lining up to challenge him for preselection.

Slipper accepted the government’s nomination for deputy speaker (over their own Anna Burke) but insisted he’d made no deals with Labor to support them in parliamentary votes. Yet a year later, when speaker Harry Jenkins resigned from the chair to shore up the minority government’s precarious numbers, Slipper accepted the government’s nomination to become speaker and promptly resigned from the Liberal Party to become “truly independent”.

The Liberals were no less assiduous in their pursuit of turncoat Slipper than Labor were with Colston. Even if the James Ashby allegations had not emerged, it’s likely Tony Abbott’s opposition would have pursued the man who was arguably the most impartial and effective Speaker we’ve had in recent times, on travel allowance misuse.

Tragically for both Colston and Slipper, their fondness for the perks of office ultimately made it easier for their political enemies to tear them down.

And today, as Abbott surveys the political landscape emerging after the Western Australia Senate election re-run, he cannot but consider the opportunities presented by a disgruntled Joe Bullock.

Depending on the final outcome of the WA ballot, Abbott may need up to seven of the eight crossbench votes in the Senate to pass his totem bills. If we are to believe media reports, Bullock and Abbott were once good friends with similar political philosophies but who ultimately took divergent paths once they left university. Considering their comparable views, the defection of Bullock to the crossbench could make Abbott’s negotiation task just that little bit easier.

Of course, Bullock would have to feel disaffected enough by his own party to want to leave. Despite the calls from the left for Bullock to step aside, so far the right-wing Labor Leader Bill Shorten is standing by his man. But watch Bullock closely if Shorten starts to wobble.

Even then, Abbott would have to provide the Senator-elect with something valued if the PM is going to have any chance of luring Bullock away from Labor.

Does this portend yet another Labor turncoat being nominated by the Government and elected as deputy president of the Senate?

It could be déjà vu.