The fate of Australian Business Investment Partnership bill in the Senate was always going to depend on whether the Greens would hang tough on their insistence that ABIP support come with limits on executive remuneration. They did and the bill went down, despite Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon, who gained Government support for his own amendments voting for it.

The defeat will widen the rift between the Liberal Party and the commercial property sector, traditionally a reflexive supporter of the conservatives. Having alienated the housing industry with its vociferous opposition to the Government’s stimulus packages, the Liberals have now sewn up the entire property sector — for Labor.

The bigger problem for the Government yesterday was internal opposition to Julia Gillard’s bill for the replacement of Australia’s own version of the Stasi, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was established by the Howard Government on the basis that one mindless, unaccountable, thuggish organisation was needed to police another.

Gillard’s original proposal, which like the Fair Work Bill was the subject of extensive consultation with Caucus by the Deputy Prime Minister, would establish a new “inspectorate” of Fair Work Australia but with more safeguards on its powers to compel cooperation by construction sector workers and unions. In Caucus yesterday, however, there was the closest thing we’ve seen to a revolt by a partyroom that has demonstrated remarkable discipline, or perhaps quiescence, since not merely the election but Kevin Rudd’s ascension to the leadership.

Even so, it wasn’t much of a revolt: Doug Cameron, that time-travelling unionist from the Calwell era, and Kate Lundy, a former CFMEU official, moved to amend the bill to change a mechanism to allow opting out by compliant projects to an opt-in mechanism, which would have entirely undermined the bill. The amendment was defeated without the need for a vote, and Rudd and Gillard emerged into the Prime Ministerial courtyard to declare that the “tough cop on the beat” (TM) would be sorting out CFMEU thugs for years to come. Journalists nodded and then bolted for the Costello press conference, partly because it was inside and warmer.

The angst from the Labor Left and the union movement does, however, give the lie to suggestions that the entire episode was confected to give the appearance that Labor was being tough on unions when it has caved in to ACTU demands. The union movement remains deeply angered at the Government’s insistence on retaining a separate enforcement mechanism for the construction industry, especially given the ABCC’s willingness to use its powers with no regard to natural justice or procedural fairness.

The Government’s rather childish effort to link its Renewable Energy Target bill to the CPRS — the sort of low rent legislative stunt beloved by the Howard Government, when it was termed “brilliant wedge politics” — remains in limbo. The Coalition is yet to resolve its position about de-linking the bills (the easiest method is to copy the relevant bits of the CPRS legislation on compensation and paste them into the RET bill), with shadow Cabinet about to consider it; the Greens have a much simpler approach, which is to remove the compensation sections of the RET bill altogether, meaning it would actually meaningfully contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions and perhaps close the aluminium industry.

The CPRS bill, however, is unlikely to make an appearance until next week. Yesterday the Government was complaining about the Senate’s lengthy legislative to-do list (a view that a few Oppositions members would not disagree with), and Anthony Albanese had told all and sundry not to bother making any plans for flights home on Thursday evening next week — the Government is evidently planning to keep everyone back after school until it gets a result.

Friday and even weekend Parliamentary sittings are all grist to the mill for a Government that would be happy to whip up a sense of crisis about its ETS legislation, with the intention of increasing the double-dissolution pressure on the Coalition. A run of legislative outs — ABIP, then perhaps the RET bill, alcopops, and finally the ETS — would, ostensibly, be damaging for the Government, but it would restore that sense from a couple of months ago that the Coalition is overwhelmingly negative and incapable of supporting the Government no matter what the issue.

And, for that matter, Labor wouldn’t mind the Senate looking like Obstruction Central, which would also feed into the perception that the Government is being allowed to govern, for which the remedy is a double dissolution.

In any event the next 10 days will see the closest thing you’ll get to legislative excitement in this place — a knock-down, drag fight on a bill the Government insists either passes or fails before anyone gets to leave. Next week will be intense.

Peter Fray

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