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The Senate: how will Abbott convince the unruly red-benchers?

Joe Hockey’s first budget is only the start of the conversation. Navigating a hostile Senate will be the real challenge, writes economist and Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss.

Last night’s federal budget is more of a discussion starter than the final word when it comes to policy change in this term of government. Given the numbers in the Senate, the list of “new commitments” announced by Treasurer Joe Hockey are best interpreted as a wish-list rather than the likely end result.

It’s been around a decade since the Senate was at the heart of discussions about “what’s going to happen”, but there is no doubt that between now and Christmas the press gallery and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ministry will be spending a lot more time in the offices with the red carpet. Good lobbyists will as well.

To pass a bill through the Senate a government needs 39 votes, but between the Liberals and the Nationals the Coalition only has only 34 votes; after the new senators take their seats in July that number falls to 33. After July, the Labor Party will have 25, the Greens 10, the Palmer United Party holds a block of four and then there are four independents, including the wily Nick Xenophon.

Much has been made of the potential role that Clive Palmer and his senators will play in the next three years, and there is no doubt it will be a big one. But that is just the beginning of the challenges the Abbot government faces.

Put simply, the government will be able to pass any bill that the ALP or the Greens support. But, when both those parties oppose a government policy, the Coalition will need all of the Palmer block and two of the four independents. Put another way, if the ALP, Greens and Palmer all oppose a bill then it has no chance of passing.

It gets worse. Imagine if the government manages to line up Palmer and two other independents to support a bill. In such a situation every single Liberal and National senator is in the balance of power. If just one of them crossed the floor it’s back to the drawing board for the government.

Now let’s take a look at some of the government’s wish-list. They want to discourage Australians from going to the doctor so often (even though people in regional Australia go to the doctor a lot less than people in Hockey’s electorate). They want to get tough on the unemployed (even though unemployment rates are much higher in regional areas than they are in Abbott’s electorate). And they want to cut public spending on health and education (even though private schools and hospitals are few and far between in regional Australia).

The National Party has a long history of supporting legislation that hurts its constituents in exchange for a few cabinet positions and the odd ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new road. But as Palmer and Indi MP Cathy McGowan showed at the last election, Coalition MPs who vote the party line ahead of their constituents’ interests might spend less time in Parliament than they spent stacking branches.

No one knows how the Senate is going to behave, but one thing for certain is that it won’t behave in the way that suits the Abbott government. You don’t build power in the Senate by voting for the governments agenda, you build it by choosing the right bit to oppose. With 18 senators sitting on the crossbench, there will be plenty of ideas about the best things to block.

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  • 1
    MJPC
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Interesting scenrios however I think too much is being expected of the PUP acting as a cohesive block wither for or against the right wing nutters.
    Firstly, Palmer will support anything that makes his pile of money higher. He is full of bulls**t and bluster now that the camera’s are on him but what happens when the bill is sitting there for his crew to vote on?
    Secondly; the PUP are such a odd assortment of ‘intellects’ I don’t think they will vote as a block and will vote whetever suits their whim on the day.
    It’s amazing how self interest often supercedes moral courage.

  • 2
    zut alors
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    A good chance for a double dissolution - the ALP won’t even need to replace that limp lettuce Shorten. The electorate will probably now vote for anyone as long as they’re not Abbott or Hockey.

  • 3
    graybul
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    At last an appraisal of Budget impact focussing upon what range of options may be effective in forestalling PM “Shape Shifter” Abbott’s strategical objective to move Health, Education and Welfare closer (not forgetting ‘arranging’ for States to lead, and take responsibility for increasing GST . . SECOND TERM objective) to a two - tiered American (Tea Party) Model.
    In a few words . . don’t get frustrated, feel impotent. Instead, get even!
    Social Media needs to change gear! Focus upon educating Senator(s) understanding their individual future’s depend upon Electorates mindset. “Not happy Jan”!!

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Not even the divinely inspired, if unordained, Abbott would be so stupid as to go for a DD though the cheer squad at 2GB is confidently predicting it would be a walkover because “..the arsonists destroyed the joint”.

  • 5
    leon knight
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Too true, Abbott will not have the ticker for a DD, but his monotonous daring of JG to call one deserves bulk retribution….bring on the flack…!!
    What a meal Keating would have made of this lot…but I am inclined to give Shorten some credit for trying to repair some of the political damage Abbott and Co have done with a higher standard of behaviour when he must be itching to cut loose.
    And notwithstanding all the ammunition available, Labor must still admit that structural reform was necessary and start showing a vision for how it should have been done properly.

  • 6
    Liamj
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Palmer is just a relief valve for the LNP, he’ll make alot of noise and haggle viciously for his cut but when comes to critical votes, he’ll go with LNP. Assuming well targeted constituency bribes flow as usual, Clive will bring his PUP+ neophytes along with him.

    I’d like to believe that some of the Nats have sufficient spine and loyalty to their constituents to defy their whips, but i don’t. I’ll bet real money there are no surprises there, even if it costs them seats; the Nats know too much about breeding docility.

    All hope then lies with the Independants, and they will probably take whatever ‘regional initiative’ Phony Tony delivers and call it a win. Crony capitalism, and so it goes.

  • 7
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    the Nats know too much about breeding docility”.
    Well done, Liam, I liked that one.

  • 8
    bobball_au
    Posted Thursday, 15 May 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Liamj I disagree with your sentiments re Palmer. He is definitely hostile to Newman first and Abbott second. To back Abbott destroys his party altogether. If you think he’s going to let that go you are silly.
    Palmer has a mission and he’ll see it thru, no fear!!!
    He will frustrate Abbott at every turn, he will hurt him whenever he can.
    you see, revenge is a very personal thing and a meal best eaten cold.
    All the unhappy Libs and some of the ALP will go to Palmer who will be the big winner in this debate, mark my words.
    Palmer sees himself taking down Newman, and Abbott and then establishing his own power base at their expense as well as a faltering ALP and Greens.
    Disregard him at your peril, he is working to a valid plan as well.

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