The government needs six out of the eight crossbench senators in order to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation and prevent a double dissolution election, but is the government really trying to avoid that outcome?

Most of the Senate crossbenchers say they have not been contacted by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull since he first threatened to call a July 2 election if they refused to pass the legislation re-establishing the ABCC. Instead Turnbull has asked South Australian Family First Senator Bob Day to get the crossbench to come up with an agreed set of amendments in order to vote as a bloc on the legislation.

Many commentators thus think the government is not seeking to get the legislation passed, and most assume a July 2 election is a fait accompli. If Turnbull were serious about the legislation, he would likely speak to the crossbench one-on-one.

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Day, who has always supported the government’s ABCC legislation, seems at this point unlikely to woo any of his fellow crossbench senators. In a video released last night, independent Senator Jacqui Lambie said she was not scared of a double dissolution election, and called the ABCC “very bad legislation” that undermined some basic civil rights and freedoms. Lambie called for a federal ICAC and said she would negotiate directly with Turnbull, not Day:

“Bob Day is free to make decisions for himself and his own state — but the problem for Bob is that his voting record shows he should just join the Liberal Party — or rename his party from Family First to Rich Family First.”

Independent Senator John Madigan also told ABC this morning he wanted a federal corruption body. He said he has not been contacted by the government in the past 10 days about the legislation:

“It’s a bit amusing, quite honestly, to say on one hand they’re open to amendments, amendments that don’t affect the integrity of the bill but, you know, they’re not speaking to all of the crossbench.”

Madigan said there was no point in getting senators and staffers to develop amendments in good faith if the government wasn’t going to consider them. He said that the change from Tony Abbott to Turnbull as prime minister “hasn’t improved markedly” the relationship between the government and the crossbench.

Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir has also had no contact with the PM’s office since the double dissolution threat, and Palmer United Party Senator Dio Wang said that while he would negotiate with the government about the ABCC legislation, he had not received “any substantive response in recent weeks” since the government passed changes to Senate voting law:

“We have not been negotiating as a political tactic for a convenient election date — our amendments on the ABCC bill go toward the government’s own work on tackling corruption in areas such as sham contracting and wage exploitation, so it’s hard to understand why the government would no longer want to discuss them in good faith.”

The issue of a wider federal anti-corruption agency is looking like a sticking point for most of the crossbench, but the government is not for turning, at this stage.

Communications Minister and the manager of government business in the Senate Mitch Fifield said the government would only consider amendments that didn’t “fundamentally weaken the ABCC”, the intent of the legislation, or that go beyond what the purpose of the ABCC is (i.e. a federal ICAC):

“It’s up to anyone to make the case if they think there should be other law enforcement or anti-corruption bodies but that’s a separate issue. We have a proposition before the Parliament which is for an Australian Building and Construction Commission. That should be looked at on its merits. If colleagues want to debate the merits or otherwise of another body that’s a separate issue.”

Fairfax chief political correspondent Mark Kenny says five votes are guaranteed in favour of the bill. Will this mean that the crossbench senators will act out of self-interest and look to save their own bacon from a July 2 election barbecue, or will the ABCC bill be the line in the sand?

Parliament is due to resume on April 18 for three weeks, ending in budget week. While the government could argue that there has already been a failure to pass the ABCC legislation due to its referral to committee earlier this year, any move to delay passage of the legislation in this three-week period will put the government on firmer ground to call the double dissolution election. If they do agree to pass it, Turnbull can claim a legislative victory, but he faces the prospect of keeping a similar-looking Senate after a regular election is held later in the year.

On the other hand, a double dissolution election for the full Senate would lower the quotas required for senators to be elected, and could mean that some of the more high-profile crossbench senators, such as Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, and Ricky Muir, could be re-elected — and less than happy with what the government had just put them through.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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