Family First Senator Steve Fielding seemed stressed in the Senate yesterday afternoon. Moved to tears over intense pressure to pass the government’s $42 billion stimulus package, the normally placid Fielding was clearly miffed that no-one from the government appeared the slightest bit interested in his plan for the unemployed. The promised 3am call from K-Rudd had clearly never eventuated, prompting some serious soul searching over whether the “awfully adversarial” Senate climate is really for him. In Fielding’s words, Canberra is a “lonely place to be.”

Let’s take a trip to mixed metaphor heaven from yesterday’s stellar Senate transcript:

I do not want to be known as the best negotiator around the table, but, sure as all heck, I will go in to bat for my fellow Australians who are going to fall off the cliff.

Frankly, the response I am getting is like chess pieces being moved on a chessboard. It is insulting to everybody. You can tap-dance around it all you like, but I will go in to bat for them every day.

I may not be the best negotiator. I am just a kid from Reservoir, but, sure as all heck, I know when someone is stuffing around.

Yes, sure as heck, debate — no problem. But, jeepers, we have to look out for our fellow Australians.

We are all fallible. We are all human beings and we get it wrong. But, blimey, Teddy, you started this out in an awfully adversarial way.

I have a few short hours to work out what I am going to do with this. I am torn between two places and a hard rock.

I have trouble sleeping at night.

Insomnia. Chess bastardry. Hard rocks. Could Steve be about to throw in the towel? If Fielding flees, who’d be next in line for gruelling grind of the Upper House?

Logically, you’d expect a vacancy to go to Family First’s number 2 Victorian Senate choice. But a casual perusal of the party’s 2004 ticket makes for shocking reading.

It turns out that in 2004, the second in line was another God-fearing soul who’s been hogging the headlines recently — Catch the Fire Ministries fruitloop Danny Nalliah. For those that missed it, Nalliah fired off an offensive press release on Tuesday blaming the Victorian bushfires on abortion.

In 2004, Nalliah was drafted on to the Family First ticket so Fielding could tap Catch the Fire members in a kind of convoluted Evangelical stack. The strategy seemed to bear fruit — aided and abetted by a dubious ALP preference deal, Fielding secured an impressive 56,376 first preference votes and did some extensive work securing the second preferences of random fringe-dwellers including the Shooters Party and the Christian Democrats.

So if Fielding flakes, might we be preparing to affix the title “Senator” to the pastor who regularly claims to have seen Jesus in the flesh?

It seems unlikely. Yesterday, Fielding rebuked Nalliah with a statement of his own:

They are an insult to the families who perished in the Victorian bushfires and their grieving friends and families.

At this immensely difficult time these communities need support and the prayers of their fellow Australians, not condemnation.

Mr Nalliah has not been a member of Family First for the past five years and we have no links to him.

Writing on Pollytics yesterday, Crikey pundit Possum Comitatus raised the terrifying prospect of a Senator Danny Nalliah. Judging by the comment thread, it’d be a long and winding road. Family First, in line with its constitution, would have to both re-admit Nalliah to the party and approve his candidacy, a prospect ABC Election Analyst Antony Green described as “completely unlikely”. In 2004 Nalliah could have theoretically been elected, if Fielding had been declared ineligible to be a candidate in the months following the poll, but before Fielding assumed his Senate seat. But the time for such shenanigans is long gone.

There is one additional hurdle. Under Section 15 of the Constitution, the Victorian Parliament would have to give its official seal. But following the 1977 referendum on Senate casual vacancies, this is closer to a rubber stamp — John Brumby might be obliged to accept any nominee Family First put up. There exists one precedent of a state legislature blocking an appointment, a path Brumby might consider in the highly unlikely case of a Nalliah candidacy.

And after Tuesday’s outburst, Fielding’s replacement almost certainly won’t be anyone from Catch the Fire.

It seems Nalliah quit Family First soon after the 2004 election in a ‘mission accomplished’ moment after Fielding went to Canberra. But lately, relations might have been tested by Fielding’s wandering views on abortion and the revelations last year that Fielding was considering quitting the party to set up a new “mainstream conservative” outfit with Peter Costello’s brother Tim. The Costello/Nalliah/Fielding circle of intrigue apparently knows no bounds.

With Nalliah now only one peg above arsonists on the public approval scale, the possibility of a even more fearful God-fearing Senator from Victoria seems slim indeed. But in the blessed life of Steve Fielding and Family First, stranger things have happened.

Peter Fray

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