So did anyone emerge from the alcopops saga with credit?

Maybe the Big Grog multinationals, who will harvest a $300m windfall when the excise is returned. But they’re embarrassed about such largesse and trying to find ways to give it to a worthy cause, with the Government intent on forcing it down their throats until they choke on it.

Maybe the Federal Coalition, which will doubtless benefit from the donations of a grateful alcohol industry for the next election, but which will wear the odium of having brought alcoholic lollywater once again within pocket money range.

Maybe the Government, which can look martyred and point to Senate obstructionism, but which has handled what was always a stunt based on a moral panic poorly.

But definitely not Steve Fielding, who claims to be the biggest opponent of binge drinking in Parliament and has struck one almighty blow in its favour with his vote.

And definitely not Country Liberal Senator Nigel “Solo Man” Scullion, who was having an “impromptu meeting” with, according to Laurie Oakes, former senator Natasha Stott Despoja in a stairwell when the division was called and had to apologise to everyone for missing the vote that briefly went in the Government’s favour before being reversed under the Senate’s “rolls replay” tradition. Sue Boyce, the last Senator to cost the Coalition a division, presumably sent Scullion a bunch of flowers this morning for getting her off the hook.

Nor Eric Abetz, who this morning said alcopops were a great way for young drinkers to keep track of their alcohol intake. Yep, Eric, keep track all the way til they pass out.

Meantime the Government and the independents are engaged in brinkmanship over the definition of a small business. It seems a minor matter to wreck a bill on. On the one hand, Julia Gillard can say, Labor took the definition of 15 people to the 2007 election and won. On the other, 20 full-time equivalents is the ABS definition of a small business and the real issue, as Nick Xenophon said this morning, is that currently under Workchoices the definition is 100, which is absurd, and whether it is reduced by 80 or 85 seems fairly trivial compared to the goal of fixing it.

The Government can afford to hang tough, because if it doesn’t budge, the attention will turn to the Coalition. Either it will get its Fair Work Bill through, or the Coalition will vote it down, handing the Government another Workchoices weapon. The latter is more likely, according to Coalition sources, given the Government hasn’t accepted the Coalition’s amendments. There may not even be a partyroom meeting to make a decision, given the final vote may come on quickly in the Senate.

So expect the Senate to reject the bill today, but for it to return in an extended sitting tomorrow. That will be when Xenophon, Fielding and Gillard have to show their hands.

As several commentators have suggested, the Government could always turn it into a double dissolution trigger. But double dissolution elections are invariably about anything BUT the bill that initiates them, and however potent Workchoices was pre-recession, it has now lost some of its bogeyman status for middle Australia. If the Government wanted a true double dissolution trigger that would have engaged the public’s support, it should have refused to deal with Nick Xenophon on the second stimulus package. The May Budget might provide some more opportunities along those lines.

The Government might also find the Senate more amenable if it organised its legislative scheduling better. It tried to get the ABIP bill through yesterday and had it delayed until the Budget. Today in the Senate the Government also wants passed a bill on the senior’s card, a tax amendment that affects NGOs’ fringe benefits arrangements, an aviation bill, a therapeutic goods bill, some budget bills and the bill that gives effect to the Government’s stimulus package promise to the Greens to double the liquid assets threshold for people claiming unemployment benefits. It insists many of the bills are urgent. The Greens tried to arrange an extra sitting week given Parliament rises this week until the Budget, but the major parties weren’t interested.

The focus might be on the brinkmanship and theatrics but sometimes doing the simple things right can make a government’s life a lot easier.

Peter Fray

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