Carbon tax rushed to burial, Clive Palmer setting the policy agenda, and Erica Betz told to “piss off” by crossbenchers on the floor of the upper house … days don’t get much more lively in Canberra than yesterday, the first day of the new Senate.  The Coalition got its first rude lesson in how not to handle the crossbench, with a failed attempt to bully and berate the Palmer United Party senators into voting a bundled carbon tax repeal bill forward. That was voted down, and Palmer himself, who spent much of the day on the Senate floor, announced a raft of new strictures he would place on the budget and conditions for putting the repeal through. But by evening, the signature policy of the Gillard government was being quietly prepared for execution — a solitary visitor in the public gallery was in attendance, and the press gallery locked. Thus do we do politics in Australia.

The day began with the usual pomp — by which is meant an assembly with the eerie air of first day at primary school and a regional Tidy Town award ceremony. There was a brief flurry when it became clear that the Palmer United/Motoring Enthusiasts bloc had, to a man and woman, decided to affirm their oath of office rather than swear on the Bible, or a Falcon maintenance manual. Thou shalt have no other gods but Clive, perhaps. They had also shown the way with party colours — Labor and Libs both piked the unanimous wearing of the red or blue in ties or dresses, and the Greens forgo on the chance to look like an aviary, but the PUP rocked out the yellow and black — especially Jacqui Lambie, who resembled the Commonwealth Bank logo, not perhaps the best look these days. Glenn Lazarus, PUP Senate leader, took up two seats down the front, and sandwiched between the Greens and the Coalition were the odds’n’sods — DLP, LDP and Family First, just about the palest group of people  you’ve ever seen, less bloc, more isolation ward.

Precedent was further disturbed when there was a non-government nominee for Senate president — the Greens’ Scott Ludlam. Had they wanted, Labor and the crossbenches en masse could have imposed a non-government president and cycled it every year between them, but there was no chance of that happening,  and Ludlam gained the votes of … the Greens.

But the main game was always going to be the climate tax repeal bill, which the government has been trying to bring up to the first day of sitting — even though the debate and vote had already been tabled for a week hence, when a committee report drops. This was the first big test of the crossbenches. With Labor and the Greens wanting to have the vote as timetabled, what would the PUP bloc do? All eyes were upon them, the moment was theirs. Lucky Clive screwed it — or did he? — by holding yet another Press Club speech at exactly the same time.

So, as the PUP flexed its doggy muscles and voted down the Coalition’s attempt to bring forward the debate, the gallery was trailing down Capital Hill to the Press Club — a perfect Canberra distance away, too close to drive, a nuisance to have to walk — to hear the latest in Clive Palmer Thought. Good thing we hurried, because Clive was brief to the point of insult, if you’d paid full whack. With some words that might have been taken from the book of verse he published some decades ago — “we are in this for our children, and our children are in this for time, and time waits for no man” — he added to the current strictures he was putting on the now-beleaguered Abbott government. Having already rejected the Norton-Kemp proposals on free-market uni fees, the $7 GP co-pay, and the six-month dole pause, Palmer now rejected the abolition of the schoolkids’ bonus and tied support for abolishing the mining tax to it. He also plugged together the Emissions Trading Scheme with a vote for Direct Action — unless Abbott supports the former, Palmer won’t support the latter.

Denying, under repeated questioning, that there was any malfeasance in the payment of $12 million from a Mineralogy fund for his election campaigning, Palmer nevertheless had to utter — when challenged about whether he had signed the cheques that transferred the money — the fatal words “I don’t recall”.

“It’s the golden moment of question time — that time when the schoolchildren herded into the public galleries get a glimpse of ‘democracy’ and become, to a girl and boy, fervent admirers of Mussolini.”

Great media moments, but by the time everyone trekked back to the Senate, PUP senators had already done their star turn. By the account of those who remained, the Coalition was gobsmacked by this display of insolence, which threw their plans into disarray. Senate leader Erica and others, a crossbencher told Crikey, were all but standing over the PUP group, trying to berate them into a yes vote. That failed, they resorted to condescension — “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” the PUP senators were asked, at which point the Coalition heavies were pointed in the general direction of “off”.

Since all this was going on at the same time as Clive was quoting JFK and talking about a Love Revolution at the Press, it could be said to be a wasted media opportunity — PUP’s bite as well as bark, etc, etc. But it also served as useful cover for what could also have been a car crash as the new senators dealt with their first big strategic and tactical call.

The latter suggested itself later in the day, after hours of back and forth horse-trading, with senators charging down corridors to find each other, handicapped by the fact that no one knew where anyone had been put. One Greens member had a chat with me, I said, “You must have work to do”, took my leave, and he barrelled towards Clive’s office. Libs were queuing up to bend the knee.

How the crossbenchers were coping with this is anyone’s guess. No one was paying much attention to  the micro-party groups — there was no chance that John Madigan, David Leyonhjelm or Bob Day would delay the vote. They’re also fairly grizzled veterans of politics, in or out of the chamber. Question time consisted of a half-hour of cat-and-mouse as to whether the Coalition would admit that a report on the co-pay said it would crush the elderly, and a debate as to what the meaning of “aware” was (“I am aware of the report”). It’s the golden moment of question time — that time when the schoolchildren herded into the public galleries get a glimpse of “democracy” and become, to a girl and boy, fervent admirers of Mussolini — and the PUP bloc watched with widening eyes. Whatever their lives had been before, this was where they were now, for the next six years, locked in a room the colour of blood with a bunch of student politicians who want to do nothing but this all day.

By the evening session, the bills had been disentangled, and Palmer’s new demands — tying retention of the schoolkids’ bonus to the mining tax abolition, and the rolling over of an ETS not only to the carbon tax repeal, but to Direct Action — had been allowed to percolate through. Many saw in this the hand of the Australia Institute, which had worked on the Clive-Al Gore extravaganza — Michelle Grattan suggesting that Palmer’s announcements had been tied to the near-simultaneous release of an Australia Institute paper specifying how the low-income measures Palmer is preserving contribute to lessening inequality in Australia — but others are sceptical. “This is all Clive,” said a long-time Palmer observer. “This is the art of the deal.”

Thus, when the vote was put again, the motion to put the debate next week, as scheduled, was lost as the PUP bloc switched their votes. There now follows an intricate series of votes in which the Coalition will have to keep faith with the PUP-bloc agreement. How they handle it will determine their relationship with the crossbenches for the months and years to come. Pulling a fast one, or several, will most likely be met with swift retribution. But the Coalition being the Coalition, will they be able to avoid the temptation?

We shall find out. And we still have the maiden speeches to look forward to.