Political junkies are doing it tough at the moment. The winter recess, and the Olympics, have blotted politics out of the media. We don’t even have Brendan Nelson to kick around at the moment.

Fortunately Nick Xenophon has leapt into the breach. Xenophon, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and will happily fill it himself. This week it’s Fuelwatch. Xenophon used to support Fuelwatch. Now he doesn’t. Based on his legislative history in South Australia, he may well support it again next week. He’s a bit like that — if not quite as bad as Dr Nelson, who struggles to get to the end of a sentence without changing his position.

Xenophon doesn’t like the bit about Fuelwatch that means retailers have to keep their prices at the same level for 24 hours. There’s a sound reason for that requirement — it gives certainty to motorists considering which station to fill up at, but no one likes it and price-fixing regulation isn’t a good look. In any event, Xenophon’s declaration doesn’t really advance debate much — we already knew he felt that way.

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But stung by Xenophon getting some airtime, Steve Fielding had to join the fray as well. Fielding also doesn’t like the 24 hour rule. Which we also knew already. But he couldn’t allow Xenophon to get one over him. These two are going to be shockers. Any publicity one gets is going to prompt the other to open their mouth.

Given the Greens want us to switch to bikes, it’s looking a bit grim for the full-blown Fuelwatch scheme. We might end up with a petrol version of the compelling Grocerychoice website.

This is, ostensibly, a terrible blow for the Government, but on reflection it’s hard to think why. Fuelwatch was always a stunt to demonstrate how much the Government felt motorists’ pain. Its introduction was likely to lead to headlines about its lack of impact, except on the poor independent retailers who, it is alleged, will be driven en masse from the industry despite their valiant attempts to provide a skerrick of competition in a market run by sinister multinationals.

If the Senate knocks it back, we’ll never hear any of that. If petrol prices spike again, the Government can shrug its shoulders and gesture toward the Coalition.

“Tell it to them,” the Prime Minister will say.

“They refused to pass Fuelwatch. They and their Big Oil mates opposed it.”

More likely, something will be negotiated in the Senate. The 24 hour period could be shrunk to six hours, or two hours. It doesn’t matter much — the scheme was going to do anything anyway. We’re not talking about the debauchery of high-quality policy outcomes here.

Xenophon and Fielding, however, will be talking. A lot.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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