This week’s Senate debacle demonstrates the need for the Abbott government to dramatically lift its games — but can it?
Many things can go wrong when you’re trying to get legislation through a chamber you don’t control. Crossbenchers need to be placated and their concerns met. If you’re in the Coalition, sometimes you even need to placate your own backbenchers, especially Nationals. You need to get the timing of the vote right, because the Senate’s laborious way of doing business can condemn bills to purgatory unless it’s aggressively managed. Amendments need to be carefully prepared to make sure they fit the bill they’re amending and the legislation that bill is changing, if necessary, and the legislative paraphernalia that may be needed for them, like amended explanatory memoranda and regulatory impact statements, prepared. Documents need to be printed and circulated before votes, in accordance with Senate procedures. Departmental officials and lawyers, and ministerial staff, have to work closely together to make sure everything runs smoothly — and that’s before they all cram into the advisers’ box down the front end of the chamber, usually with several kilos of folders between them, to help guide ministers through the process.
As Bismarck famously suggested, like sausage-making, the whole legislative process doesn’t exactly look appetising.
But when your Senate leader ends up outside the chamber desperately negotiating on the fly with crossbenchers over major amendments after you’ve succeeded in shutting off debate in order to bring on a vote, that’s pretty much the worst scenario possible. Well, actually, there’s an even worse scenario — losing the vote. And that’s what happened yesterday: on the single biggest piece of legislation of the Abbott government’s first term, the government killed debate in the Senate, brought on a vote, and lost when it was thinking it would win. Bismarck’s sausage machine had blown up and showered the government with offal.
In the long run, the actual outcome won’t matter a great deal — assuming Clive Palmer doesn’t have an agenda to simply keep inventing reasons not to pass the carbon price repeal bill (and that’s not necessarily a safe assumption), the carbon price will be repealed next week. But yesterday’s legislative disaster was another bad sign for a troubled government.
Undoubtedly Palmer engineered events to inflict maximum damage on the government. But the government played right into his hands. Responsibility for the negotiation and amendment process for the carbon price repeal bill belongs to the portfolio minister, Greg Hunt, whose office, in co-ordination with the Prime Minister’s Office, was supposed to be managing the bill.
“Abbott and poor performers like Hunt will have to lift their game if the government is to avoid the ongoing impression of chaos.”
By his own admission, Hunt must have known about the problems of the PUP’s last-minute amendment yesterday morning, almost an hour before the government brought on the gag motion in the Senate that set the clock ticking for an 11.50am vote. Indeed, Palmer actually flagged that something was afoot to journalists even earlier in the morning. Yet the government’s Senate leadership proceeded with the gag motion. Did Hunt’s office tell them or the PMO of the problems? If Hunt did, the decision to proceed with the gag motion significantly worsened the government’s predicament — it’s one thing to be dudded by Clive, but quite another to set the clock ticking to a failed vote. If Hunt didn’t, it’s a major failure by his office.
So it’s back to the House of Reps next week for the repeal bill, where the Doyens of Deregulation will pass an absurdly draconian amendment imposing requirements on business relating to passing on cost savings. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch: for three years, the Coalition has been incessantly claiming the carbon price would inflict exorbitant cost increases on families. Well, the PUP are taking the Coalition’s claims seriously and demanding those big cost increases — which never happened — be eliminated. As for business complaints about the PUP amendment, well, they should’ve thought of that when they campaigned so hard against Labor for the removal of the carbon price.
The day didn’t get any better for the government. Labor very cleverly (how often have we been able to use that phrase in the last six years?) tabled the regulations repealing the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA), which the government had been refusing to table in order to maximise its chances of avoiding disallowance.
Labor had tried once to table the regulations this week and been defeated; yesterday Labor Senator (and now the head of the Senate Economics Committee) Sam Dastyari began reading them into Hansard, until a Labor Senator demanded he table what he was reading from; the government tried to prevent tabling but lost the ensuing vote. All completely legitimate — Senate practice makes clear anyone can table regulations for disallowance. Indeed, Labor was merely doing to the Coalition what the Coalition did to it in 2009, when the Coalition tabled building industry regulations and disallowed them.
This time around, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann glumly, and redundantly, then tabled the regs himself, so there’ll be a vote for disallowance next week, probably Tuesday.
It was a dismal end to a week that was supposed to be one of triumph for the government, with a new Senate repealing the carbon price and the Prime Minister showing off his close relationship with his Japanese counterpart. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit went well, and the government is right to build on what is obviously a strong relationship between the two leaders, whatever the appeasers and apologists for Beijing in the foreign policy commentariat might claim.
But foreign policy doesn’t matter to punters. Being able to actually govern and legislate effectively does. One of the big questions about an Abbott prime ministership was always going to be how effective he would be as a negotiator, particularly compared to Julia Gillard, who was masterful at negotiating legislation through not one but two recalcitrant houses. So far, the answer is rubbish. Abbott and poor performers like Hunt will have to lift their game if the government is to avoid the ongoing impression of chaos.
But we’ve been saying the government needs to lift its game virtually since the moment it took office. Does it actually have the capacity to do so under its current Prime Minister?