It’s going to be hard for the Abbott government not to shoot itself in the foot before the new Senate is even sworn in. Yet it appears to be taking careful aim at its right foot and about to squeeze the trigger.
The context for the federal government now will be a never-ending drum-beat about the Abbott government being harsh towards the poor, the sick, the disabled, pensioners and the university sector. In this context it is going to have to constantly cobble together alliances with independents and minor parties in the Senate.
Two of those incoming senators on July 1 are natural allies of the Coalition agenda, or most of it, yet they are angry.
“They have just made what amounts to a declaration of war on my party,” senator-elect David Leyonhjelm, the treasurer of the Democratic Liberal Party, told me.
A week ago, the Liberal Party filed a complaint with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal against a decision by the Australian Electoral Commission to allow the Liberal Democratic Party to use the word Liberal in its name. This follows similar objections by the Liberals in 2007, 2008 and last year, which have all failed. It has just upped the attack.
“We’ve had our name since 2001 in the ACT and are totally committed to it,” Leyonhjelm said. “We utterly reject the implication that the Liberals own the word ‘liberal’. It’s not even an accurate description of their philosophy – they should more accurately be called Conservatives. We are the real liberals.
“It is also rather dumb politics by the Liberals. The government will need six out of the eight minor party senators to pass its legislation. Bob Day and I are by far the most likely of the eight to support their legislative program, with the exception of tax increases.”
Bob Day is a senator-elect from the Family First party who won election from South Australia in 2013. He has developed a friendship with Leyonhjelm in part because they share a strong philosophical dislike of big government and excessive state intrusion.
“We will also have much more contact with the other minor party senators and the opportunity to influence their votes,” Leyonhjelm said. “But if the Liberals persist in attacking me and my party because of our name, they will certainly lose my support.”
I asked him if there had been any serious attempt by the Liberals to build a bridge with him? “No.”
Instead, the government appears to have focused energy on building a relationship with the combustible, erratic Clive Palmer and his three Palmer United Party senators.
It means the government’s ambitious legislative agenda could be staked on a constructive relationship with a deconstructive billionaire who also happens to be locked in an obsessional feud with the Liberal Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman.
“I understand the initiative for this latest legal move against us by the Liberals is coming from Brian Loughnane,” Leyonhjelm said. “He thinks anyone who votes for the Liberal Democrats is a lost vote for the Liberals due to name confusion. This view is false.”
“I’d like to think Tony Abbott can see that achieving his legislative program is far more important than owning the word Liberal. If Labor can learn to live with the DLP, the Liberals can learn to live with the LDP.”
These are all fighting words from an erstwhile ally.
Leyonhjelm's name offers a clue. It means lion on a helmet in the original Swedish. He's a political warrior with a belief system so he is not going to roll over. For example, the government can kiss goodbye to its paid parental leave scheme if he had his way, which would have an immediate significant impact on the budget (and could do Abbott and Hockey a budget favour).
Leyonhjelm is one of the few people in the Senate, now or in the one to begin sitting on July 1, who believes the government could easily end deficit spending within its first term in office. He is not wedded to all the deals with all the constituencies the government seeks to make deals with.
Senator-elect Day, of Family First, is also ticked off, with no bridge built to him, either. He will be even more prickly to deal with as he is not a de facto Liberal supporter under a different brand. He is a libertarian on economic issues and a conservative on social issues.
It is not too late for the Liberals to avoid a self-inflected wound, but this new Senate is looking even more precarious for the government agenda with each passing week.