Steve Fielding is looming as the biggest threat to passage of the Government’s stimulus package through the Senate. And that’s exactly how the Government wants it.

The Senate started debating the bills this morning and will go through until tomorrow night, with the aid of lengthy speeches from Labor senators to pass the time while negotiations proceed with the minor parties. There are no negotiations with the Coalition. Contrary to the impression given to the media in yesterday’s joint party room briefing and in weekend comments, Malcolm Turnbull will not negotiate with the Government on the current package. He has only offered to negotiate a different package if this one doesn’t pass the Senate.

Given the pressure the Coalition will be under if that happens, that’s probably prudent.

Both Senate committees considering the package reported overnight. Community Affairs considered the housing component of the package, Finance and Public Administration the rest. In both cases, Coalition senators issued dissenting reports. The Greens, Xenophon and Fielding all made “Additional Comments” on the Finance report, the Greens on the housing report.

The Greens identified greater investment in energy efficiency, more resources for the social sector and extending bonuses to low-income earners who pay no tax as issues, but Bob Brown narrowed the scope slightly this morning to focus on the bonus payments and, in particular, a demand for the Government to suspend the requirement that the unemployed use up their own assets before receiving support. To access Newstart benefits, recipients must run down any liquid assets to below thresholds which were halved by the Howard Government in 1997 to $2500 for a single person and $5000 for a couple, or wait up to 13 weeks for any assistance. The Greens want to remove that requirement for people made unemployed in coming months, or at least significantly lift the threshold, perhaps up to where it would have been if it had been indexed.

Nick Xenophon flagged a greater range of energy and water-saving subsidies for households that already have insulation and solar systems, the design of the bonuses and, like the Greens, wants an acceleration of funding for water buybacks on the Murray-Darling Basin, which would bring forward existing MDB funding rather than redirecting funding from the stimulus package.

Given both the Greens and Xenophon said they recognised the need for a package, some sort of deal with the Government looks likely, although Bob Brown was careful this morning to warn the Government not to take the Greens for granted. And if the Greens and Xenophon can make Penny Wong get her skates on in accelerating water buybacks in the MDB, all power to them.

Steve Fielding also supports a stimulus package, but in a long and occasionally rambling essay released to the media yesterday, said he would only vote for it if “Kevin Rudd was more conciliatory and welcomed ideas from the cross-benches”. The one “idea” Fielding has been specific on is that he wants the Government to redirect $4b within the package to local, community-based employment projects that he claims would generate more jobs than those forecast by Treasury for the current measures.

But $4b — 10% of the package — is a big hit, especially if Treasury disagrees with Fielding’s claim about its job generation potential.

If Fielding sticks to his guns, that would leave the Government one vote short of getting it through, even if it thrashes out an agreement with the Greens and Xenophon. It would also be perfect politics for Labor. Having compromised with minor party senators, the Prime Minister could claim he did the reasonable thing, but the extremists in the Coalition blocked his stimulus package. Rudd would have another chance to hammer the message that he’s moderate and sensible and the Coalition are a bunch of wild-eyed ideologues. And he’s unlikely to have too much difficulty convincing voters that he’s right.

And if you think Rudd would prefer to get his stimulus package through rather than play politics, this is the bloke who yesterday deliberately linked funding to rebuild schools and homes burnt on the weekend with the package in his speech on return to Parliament. His office subsequently put a soothing spin on it, but it was an unnecessary injection of politicking into a moment that should have been free of such pettiness.

Indeed, Rudd’s speech yesterday was dire, consisting mostly of a recitation of the programs and spending that the Government had set up to help Victorians. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he may not have been in the mood for soaring rhetoric given what he’d been through since Saturday, and in any event soaring rhetoric wasn’t needed.

Luckily, he was almost immediately followed by Russell Broadbent, whose marvellous and moving speech was one of the finer moments I’ve witnessed in Parliament and who thoroughly deserved the unParliamentary round of applause that broke out at its conclusion both in the chamber and in the galleries. Broadbent was generous in his praise of all his colleagues, including the Prime Minister and Julia Gillard, whom he thanked for making what he said would be one of the most important speeches of her career yesterday when she commenced the condolence motion.

Both houses have suspended Question Time for the rest of the week in recognition of the bushfires. Bob Brown noted that if the major parties were worried about how political combat would look at a time of national tragedy, they ought to think about how they conduct themselves. A very good point, but one likely to be lost on Labor and the Coalition.

Peter Fray

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