‘‘Anybody that wants to take money off our pensioners and wants to take money away from our health system and when people are dying on our waiting lists ... then you gotta ask the question, ‘where is the political mind of Tony Abbott?’.’’
Negotiating the new Senate
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Negotiating the new Senate
Eight crossbenchers will control the fate of Government legislation in the new senate. Chris Hammer and Mark Kenny analyse the state of play.
So said Tasmanian Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie on Thursday morning in comments that will hardly have endeared her to the Prime Minister. But then, she has previously called him a ‘‘political psychopath’’, so perhaps she’s softening?
This was just day three of the thrill-a-minute new Senate – or as one onlooker dubbed it, ‘‘the world according to Clive’’.
It came in a week that began with another terrible poll for the federal government underscoring the under-appreciated depth of its political challenge as it approaches its second year.
Consider the current and future elements already apparent.
An obstructive Labor-Greens Senate until now, which has apparently paid no political price for blocking about $25 billion of savings and new revenue measures despite what the government believes is its clear mandate for fiscal repair.
A new Senate to sit from next week containing a record eight crossbenchers with highly divergent aims of which Abbott needs the support of six for any bills opposed by the Labor-Greens axis (and in which up to four votes are tied together in the PUP bloc).
A deeply unpopular deadlocked budget that has been poorly designed and is being even more poorly sold.
And finally, a raft of reform objectives which were hived off to reviews early on, but which will mostly mature just as the 2016 election approaches demanding decisions and therefore adding to the difficulties faced by a government.
These reviews incidentally, include separate white papers on reforming the federation and taxation – both of which it is expected will traverse the perilous terrain of changes to the 10 per cent GST.
Also certain to be problematic is a promised Productivity Commission review of Labor’s Fair Work Act which will inform labour market reforms inviting another Work Choices scare campaign.
Add to this mix too the unpaid political bill from buying peace last year on pensions and superannuation. Abbott negated fears of changes in retirement incomes by promising no cuts to pensions and no adverse surprises to super this term.
Individually these elements present problems for the government, but it will be how it manages the new Senate that determines all else.
If Abbott can get this part of it right – and let's face it, his past negotiating record is questionable – the other things become politically manageable. If he gets it wrong, each will become signposts of his decline.
Like the helpful local who advises a lost traveller ‘‘if I were going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start here,’’ the government heads into this challenge from the wrong place.
Just when it needs maximum authority to break through the opposition lines and whip populist independents into line, its stocks are at their lowest in five years –- almost identical in fact to those of Julia Gillard when Labor moved on her last year.
The Gillard comparison is doubly relevant here. One of the main reasons voters were lining up to get rid of the last government well before the election was the hung parliament.
Fairfax-Nielsen pollster John Stirton says the hung parliament helped Abbott to foment ‘‘a general air of instability’’.
‘‘For the first 12 months, the Coalition behaved as if an election was imminent,’’ he said.
It was a condition from which the minority government never recovered and it brought errors such as drafting in Peter Slipper to be Speaker.
While Stirton believes the current situation is less serious, because Labor’s vulnerability was in the lower house where government is formed, he concedes the impression on voters could be similar if the government mishandles its Senate strategy.
Judging by Senator Lambie’s assessment, Abbott has some work to do yet.