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How covert union stays disciplined

The election is being contested by two antagonist political coalitions, both highly disciplined in their voting unity. While one of them is called, unimaginatively, the Coalition, the other coalition has no name and pretends it does not exist. It is the Voldemort of Australian politics, aka He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

This coalition that will not name itself may tremble with mutual mistrust but it has, nonetheless, been supremely disciplined where it counts: voting. In the 2010 election, 45 of Labor's 72 MPs won their seats on Greens' preferences. This alliance kept Julia Gillard's minority government in office for an entire three-year term. Over those three years, the coalition-that-must-not-be-named exercised ruthless efficiency in tandem. In the Senate, where Labor and the Greens could combine to impose their will, they paired up to guillotine debate on 216 bills and rammed them through Parliament.

This statistic may not mean much to most people but, by way of contrast, during the last three-year term of the Howard government, the Coalition had a majority in the Senate but guillotined debate on only 32 bills.

The ruthlessness of the Labor-Greens coalition reached its zenith during the frenetic final day of Parliament, in the hours after Labor had decapitated its leader, recycled Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, and intended to ram through as much legislation as possible to fireproof the next Parliament against expected defeat in the federal election.

Labor had a very willing partner. So willing that, on the last sitting day, Friday, June 28, it was able to guillotine debate on 55 bills. That is more in just six hours than the Coalition had guillotined in three years. Little wonder leader of the opposition in the Senate Eric Abetz delivered one of the most revealing and enraged parliamentary speeches of the three-year term of government.


''Never before in the history of the Senate have the provisions of the standing orders been so abused … Earlier this week I asked whether any deal had been done with the Australian Greens to get their agreement, their connivance, to move this unprecedented guillotine of over 55 bills this week …

''Not content with guillotining bills through this place, those opposite, the Labor Party, are now doing the dirty work for the Australian Greens, sponsoring Greens' motions as government business.

''So we had to have the pantomime of that thespian Senator Bob Carr claiming to attack the Greens. What a pathetic act that was, when we now see the dirty, sleazy deals that are done behind closed doors, away from the microphones.

''When I asked Senator Stephen Conroy [then government leader in the Senate], 'Can you give an assurance that no deal has been done with the Greens in relation to the guillotine?' he studiously avoided the question. He did not deny the allegation. We now know why.''

The unspoken deal-that-could-not-be-named, by the coalition-that-must-not-be named, was that the Greens would get several of their provisions passed into law, plus a motion to give them a seat on the Senate privileges committee, the most influential in the Senate, during the next Parliament.

''So,'' thundered Abetz, ''on the very last day of this Parliament, there are the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, they may have publicly ripped up the marriage certificate, but they are still cohabiting … And I say to the empty press gallery … the gross hypocrisy of some of the scribes in the press gallery who wrote column after column after column condemning the Liberal and National Party majority in the Senate for the outrage against democracy for forcing 32 bills through the Senate. Where are their fingers on the keyboards [now]?''

In this context, the least surprising major preference development of this election is the Coalition putting the implacably hostile Greens last in every contest, while Labor gives the Greens its first preferences everywhere except Queensland, where Bob Katter, an old mate of Rudd, will get the nod instead.

The coalition-that-must-not-be-named is thus sticking together where it matters, voting, which may deliver the Greens the balance of power in the Senate and even save their one seat in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt's electorate of Melbourne.

Labor's candidate for this once safe Labor seat, Cath Bowtell, has said her campaign is so starved of resources and finance that volunteers have resorted to borrowing mobile phones and computers. No need to wonder why.

Thus while the media has been fixated on a presidential-style election campaign between Rudd and Tony Abbott, what has been neglected is the important rearguard action that Labor is fighting in the Senate campaign. As its decision to preference the Greens shows, it would rather have the Greens with the balance of power. This means Labor wants gridlock, something the Greens are happy to deliver. As Gillard said in 2011: "We happily leave to the Greens being a party of protest with no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform.''

Dirty deals can backfire. The Greens learnt this on the final day of Parliament when Abetz, knowing a guillotine was hanging over every matter, proposed several amendments, which consumed the limited time available, and the Greens' perk of the privileges committee became a casualty of its own guillotine.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_


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