Bob Day

Labor’s mischief in the Senate on Thursday highlights the ongoing struggle the government will have to control the agenda during sitting weeks when it doesn’t have the numbers to do what it wants done.

Just before midday on Thursday the government’s manager of business in the Senate Mitch Fifield attempted to put on the legislation for the day. However, he only included relatively non-controversial legislation. What was conspicuously excluded was thebackpacker tax legislation. This is peculiar, given government MPs said it was urgent that the backpacker tax be passed before Christmas, which is when the originally planned “pause” on the changes would be unpaused.

There are fears from farmers in regional and rural Australia that backpackers facing higher taxation will not visit Australia to pick fruit over the summer period.

An unusual, unholy alliance of Labor, Greens, One Nation, Jacqui Lambie and David Leyonhjelm formed to vote down the routine legislation and instead attempt to bring on debate for the backpacker tax legislation — which would have backpackers taxed 19 cents in the dollar. Labor and Lambie want the tax reduced to 10.5 cents in the dollar.

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They won 35 votes to 28 with the Nick Xenophon Team and Derryn Hinch voting with the government against the change.

The government, faced with the prospect of having the legislation either amended or voted down, is holding off on debating it until it can reach an agreement with the crossbench on a suitable compromise. Lambie said that the Nationals, in particular, were betraying the regional constituents they claim to represent.

“What a nasty, grubby, little porky being peddled by a group of backstabbing, gutless cowards,” she said. “If we do not have backpacker seasonal workers coming to Australia then millions of tonnes of ripe fruit, berries and vegetables will rot — they will absolutely rot — and farm businesses will go bankrupt and thousands of full-time Australian workers in the farming and food processing industries will have to be sacked.”

Facing the prospect of having to debate legislation he didn’t want debated, Fifield labelled Labor’s action a stunt, and quickly moved to debate non-controversial legislation instead — namely amendments to legislation to allow for the medicinal cannabis program. The result was what on-lookers called the government effectively filibustering its own legislation, meaning there was a lengthy speech on what normally is routine government business from government Senator Ian Macdonald on how he believes he may be the one person in Australia to never smoke marijuana — despite the fact, he says, that in his lawyer days the police were convinced he was “in the business”.

Eventually, the time for the backpacker tax legislation to be debated passed in time for question time, and Brandis’ repeal of his own direction — regarding the solicitor-general — before facing an embarrassing motion disallowing the direction in the Senate became Labor’s new focus.

The stunt may have been short-lived, but allowed Labor to play into the ongoing chaos narrative for the government. If Day is replaced, as many have suggested, by former Labor senator Anne McEwen, depending on how the High Court votes, expect more chaos as the government needs an even greater majority of the crossbench to get what it wants.