While much of the media’s attention yesterday was focused on the Prime Minister furiously stabbing the reset button, and his success or otherwise in tickling the tummy of the Press Gallery that had given him such a ragging last week, other, more substantial, events were playing out.

The Prime Minister’s concession on Australian Defence Force entitlements had proven insufficient to lure Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie out of her point-blank opposition to all government bills — indeed, NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm publicly mused that he might start opposing all bills as well until the PM allows a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. Lambie’s recalcitrance — if Teddy Roosevelt was “pure Act”, as Henry Adams said, then Lambie is surely pure Recalcitrance — was bad news for the government’s higher education reforms, on which the Coalition is pinning its hopes for a decent end to the legislative year. The numbers currently look bad for the government, with PUP and Lambie opposed (she suggested this morning that someone send Education Minister Christopher Pyne a box of Kleenex …) and Nick Xenophon reluctant to move to a vote this year. But it has the support, to varying degrees, of Leyonhjelm, Madigan and Day, and Ricky Muir’s position is unclear, so a compromise win could still be on the cards after the government burnt a couple of billion agreeing to lower the indexation rate of student loans.

The government, though, is in a lose-lose position on university fee deregulation: if it secures passage, it can celebrate a win but it will own the burden of the $100,000 degrees that Labor will campaign hard on at the next election, and voters oppose deregulation by a factor of more than two to one. And if it loses, it will be another blow for Joe Hockey’s beleaguered budget. On which, by the way, you may have missed that during yesterday’s Press Gallery tummy-tickle, Abbott said that the budget was back under control and had gotten back under control from the moment he was elected. “It’s like if you’ve got a fire, the moment the fire brigade turns up, the situation starts to come under control,” Abbott offered by way of explanation. Which doesn’t quite explain how the budget deficit blew out in the government’s first MYEFO, then blew out more in its first budget, and now looks set to blow out for 2014-15 at the coming MYEFO.

But anyway, back to Lambie. Lambie’s hostility to university fee deregulation isn’t merely because of the ADF pay deal. As she outlined in her speech in the Senate last night during debate on the bill, her opposition is based on something quite different. Given her background, if Lambie had adopted the view that higher education was a middle-class indulgence for which taxpayers shouldn’t have to shell out, it would have been entirely understandable. But she has very different views: her speech was a ferocious attack on the government as a practitioner of class warfare. In urging Muir to oppose the bill, she said

“I ask that, before he votes, Ricky consider the tens of thousands of children who come from working class backgrounds who will never be given the opportunity to better themselves and improve their lot in life through a university education — because the Liberals’ costs will scare them and stop them from even dreaming of a university degree. This legislation is deliberately designed to keep working class people in their place by Liberals who think they are born to rule and lord over normal Australians.”

This is very strong stuff. Earlier, she had said, “[i]f we accept the Liberals’ proposed radical plans for higher education contained in this bill, as a nation we will take a large step to the right. Our country will become less caring, a place where class differences become greater … The haves, in a future Australian society dominated by Liberal policies presented to this parliament in recent times, will be guaranteed to have more. And the have-nots will be forced to fight amongst themselves for a fair go and a smaller share of the Australian common wealth.”

Such language augurs poorly for the government’s chances of securing Lambie’s support for any sort of economic deregulation, not just on university fees, and suggests Lambie isn’t merely a simple populist: this was as trenchant and unsubtle a critique of class and public policy as the Senate has heard for a long time.

By that point in the evening, Lambie’s erstwhile leader Clive Palmer had nearly completed his journey from the mid-year political rooster to end-of-year feather duster. With PUP languishing at 3% nationally in the polls, reduced to two senators and scoring a risible 1.62% in the Victorian upper house — a tad more than the Animal Justice Party but below Family First — Palmer is now a political shadow of the legislative gatekeeper he delighted in being earlier in the year. And when journalists homed in on his ongoing litigation difficulties after a banal, content-less address at the National Press Club, he vented his fury at them with all the class of a screaming child.

Palmer complains he is the subject of a News Corporation smear campaign. Unlike many of Clive’s conspiracy theories, that’s entirely true, but other politicians in non-Coalition parties are also the target of News Corporation campaigns, and many of those campaigns have less substance than the one being waged at him (the smears directed at Julia Gillard, anyone?), but other politicians don’t carry on like a tantrum-throwing toddler. Nothing could have been more calculated to expose Palmer as a wealthy man too used to having his own way to cope with the basic scrutiny that comes with public life. The question now is whether PUP will have any influence at all in the coming Queensland election, whereas once Palmer dared dream of seizing the balance of power with a clutch of defectors and his own MPs.

A more likely outcome is a byelection in Fairfax before the next election as the mining magnate engages in his final political dummy spit.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey