By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
IT was like watching the little kids taunting the big kid in the playground, after the Senate handed the government a trigger for a double dissolution by rejecting for a second time the bill to scrap Labor’s “green bank”.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if Tony Abbott wanted an election “he should bring it on”; Christine Milne said the Greens “are ready for an early election, if Tony Abbott has the ticker for it”.
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop acknowledged the political reality. “Just because you are given a trigger, it doesn’t mean you have to pull it.” Especially, she might have added, if there is a high risk of shooting yourself in the head.
A little while ago, Abbott was throwing out veiled and not-so-veiled threats about another election if the Senate frustrated his program.
Quite possibly he didn’t mean them then – though there were stories claiming he really did – but certainly he’ll be in no position in the foreseeable future to take such a gamble.
Another election any time soon would drive a sour electorate to deeper anger and frustration. If the current polls were translated into votes, people would be taking their baseball bats to the government. Although, elections can be unpredictable. One has to remember that people are now primarily making judgements about the government, not a real-time decision about the government versus the opposition.
A double dissolution might polarise the electorate – or alternatively cause people to lash out at the major parties, potentially to the benefit of Clive Palmer’s PUP. So with all Senate seats in contention, and thus a smaller quota, crossbenchers could still end up powerful in a re-elected upper house.
The “trigger” legislation – to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which mobilises investment in renewable energy and lower emissions technologies – is really neither here nor there for the government, though it is pledging to reintroduce it soon so the new Senate can deal with it.
Bills for budget measures are another matter. The levy on high income earners passed on Tuesday, but the reinstatement of fuel excise indexation, part of the planned savings in child care, and the promised financial break for states that sell assets and reinvest in infrastructure, are among the items at risk.
How much the Senate will frustrate remains to be seen. There will be haggling with both the current upper house and the one that starts next month. Various other budget nasties that don’t start for a long while can wait in terms of their legislation.
Then there is the paid parental leave scheme that many Coalition members would be happy to see voted down or hacked about.
In the government’s mind, the most crucial measures are repealing the carbon tax and scrapping the mining tax.
Abbott will on Monday reintroduce the carbon tax repeal legislation and, later in the week, the legislation to get rid of the mining tax. The bills will be ready to be considered quickly by the new Senate, which is being summoned for work from July 7 – much earlier than is usually the case when there is a Senate turnover.
From what Clive Palmer has said, the repeal of these taxes should get through, although there might be some arm wrestling before that happens. His condition on the carbon legislation is that there should be a legal provision to ensure the savings are passed on to consumers; he says the mining tax repeal will only be passed if a benefit (associated with the original tax package) for children of defence personnel killed or badly injured in service is retained.
The carbon and mining tax repeal bills would be double dissolution triggers if defeated. Abbott before the election gave firm undertakings that if he could not get the carbon tax abolition through he would go to a DD. This is the one issue in relation to a double dissolution on which he would look a wimp if he retreated.
Double dissolution triggers can of course be kept in the back pocket, until the political climate improves. But any change in the weather looks a long way off (if it ever comes). And even then there would need be a very good reason for the government to get the gun out. The expectation remains a 2016 election.
Because the budget has been seen by voters as unfair and off key and the government’s general performance has been poor, Labor is able to have a great time playing the “say no” game with impunity.
But as time goes on, it will have to make careful judgements as to how it presents itself.
For what it’s worth, ALP senator Mark Bishop, serving out his final fortnight, had some advice for his soon-to-be-former colleagues, when he delivered his valedictory speech on Tuesday.
“I believe mere noise and total opposition to any and all government proposals will be ultimately self-defeating. Soon we need to prove our capacity to be in government in the short term.
“I say unequivocally, let the major opposition party lead the debate and be the opposition party—isolating the rest.
“I hold to the view that the party or parties that control a majority on the floor of the House should govern in both places. The same principle should have applied for the last six years and the same principle should apply again when we again occupy the Treasury benches.”
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.