It’s hard to get excited about the unfolding drama of the Senate’s consideration of the stimulus package. Maybe it’s the bushfires, which have put such matters firmly in context. Or perhaps it’s the suspicion that the minor parties won’t ultimately stand in the way of the package. Most media coverage is based on the idea that it is a problem for the Government if the package doesn’t pass, which misses the real point that it is in fact a major problem for the Coalition and whichever minor party senators do not vote for it.

As of this morning it seemed the Greens were having a better time of negotiations with the Government than Xenophon or Fielding. Brown told the Senate a short time ago that he was close to agreement with the Government and expected to emerge with an agreement and amendments within the hour. The Greens have a clear agenda of detailed proposals: mitigating the effect of the liquid asset requirements of the Newstart allowance; allowing low income earners with no net tax liability to receive the bonus payments, and allowing local councils to re-apply for access to the expanded (from $50m to $550m) Local Community Infrastructure fund made available after the Local Government summit last year, which would not actually cost anything. They’re also seeking emergency funding for the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

Xenophon, who has circulated an amendment establishing a Murray-Darling fund that would bring forward separate money from the Government’s buyback fund, indicated he wasn’t quite so close to agreement and said he wanted to meet the Treasurer again. The Government has already told him it won’t support his MDB amendment.

As for Steve Fielding, well, who knows.

That said, the more likely scenario is that the package will be voted through, although in the words of one adviser, it will “go down to the wire.” The Government will make some concessions to the Greens, and perhaps to Nick Xenophon on the MDB. They will vote for the package, not because they’re especially happy with what the Government has offered, but because they know some sort of package needs to be passed. Steve Fielding will also vote for it, not because he’s happy with anything the Government has offered, but because he’s too scared of the consequences of blocking it. We probably haven’t seen the last infuriated rant from Fielding this week.

But the only slightly less likely scenario is that one of the Greens, Fielding or Xenophon — more likely the latter two — will vote against it. That will make the Government happy indeed, even if that delight is hidden behind an onslaught of confected outrage.

Meantime we wait. Debate — and I use the term loosely — in the Senate drones on. The deadline is still midnight but it may yet be extended. Labor senators haven’t started reading recipes into Hansard yet but it may not be far off. “Settle in for a long day,” Chris Evans told Eric Abetz this morning. Despite suggestions the Government may force a vote, there’ll be no decisive votes until later this afternoon and this evening.

The real action, if you can call it that, is in meetings between senators, their staff, Government advisers and senior bureaucrats. It is not a rapid or easy process. If Xenophon or Fielding want significant changes it can take several meetings to develop their proposals, which then have to be analysed and costed by officials. Lindsay Tanner and his Secretary Ian Watt will need to be kept apprised of all revenue and expenditure implications and may object to them. The Prime Minister’s Office will have to sign off on any deals and may kill an agreement because they reckon they see a bigger picture. If a deal is hammered out, the drafters at the Office of Parliamentary Counsel will be on standby to prepare the necessary amendments either to the bills in question or to other legislation. A major change to the package might even require a Cabinet meeting.

And all that assumes a senator doesn’t change their mind, which has been known to happen. I’ve seen politicians demand amendments as a critical part of the price for their support, then denounce the same amendments in public.

It also assumes the Government is prepared to bend over backwards to get the package through, and it’s not at all clear that it is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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