Senate obstructionism as a political theme remains fairly unexplored under this Government, for a couple of reasons. We’re all innately sceptical of Governments’ insistence that the Senate quit amending or blocking their measures. After all, we saw what happened when the Howard Government, in a splendid example of being careful what you wish for, got a Senate majority. And if we put aside 2004, voters appear happy with the idea of the Senate acting as a brake on executive power.
But there must by definition be a line somewhere between acting as a responsible check and improving legislation, and outright obstructionism. The idea of a government “not being allowed to govern”, with its hints of 1975, is a potentially powerful one if a Government is popular – which this one still remains.
This morning the Government ramped up its efforts to exploit the issue by holding a dramatic and unusual multi-minister press conference: senior ministers Lindsay Tanner, Stephen Conroy, Jenny Macklin, Penny Wong and Nicola Roxon all crowded onto the podium in the Blue Room here at Parliament House, looking a bit like one of those Doctor Who specials where different Doctors join forces. They were there to lament the blockage of the Government’s bills in the Senate. The real target, obviously, was Tony Abbott and his “relentless negativity”.
While the Government pointed to high-profile legislation like its Telstra structural separation bills and the private health insurance rebate amendments, obstructionism will now take on a more interesting angle because Abbott refused today to rule out blocking legislation implementing the Government’s parental leave scheme, although Abbott was careful to not explicitly commit to blocking it, insisting the Government should get behind his scheme.
Government ministers are already talking about the uncertainty this will cause Australian families who might have planned on the Government’s scheme being in place from the scheduled date of 1 January 2011. The Opposition will be piously urged by the Government to do the right thing and set working families’ minds at rest by waving the scheme through. It’s the sort of confected campaign of outrage that the Howard Government routinely ran whenever Labor failed to immediately lock in behind it.
At the press conference, journalists correctly inquired as to whether it was a case of actual Senate obstructionism or whether the Government simply wasn’t very good at negotiating with the minor parties. As Penny Wong – I think (I lost track of ministers, there were so many) – noted, it’s a bit hard to negotiate with both the Greens and Steve Fielding on issues like climate change.
Tanner also emphasised the impact on the Budget of the defeat of the private health insurance rebate rollback, another angle the Government will continue to hammer. This is a theme the Government is keen to keep pushing.