Tony Abbott ought to be watching Victoria closely.
His problem – a disgruntled former Liberal controlling the balance of power and holding the Government’s agenda to ransom – is exactly what Denis Napthine has had to deal with for the past year.
In 2010 the Victorian Coalition won government with a one-seat majority. Such a margin would have been perfectly serviceable if it wasn’t for the fact that Geoff Shaw, the Liberal member for Frankston, was accused of an entitlement rort, fell out with the Speaker, then fell out with his party, and then fell out with the entire Parliament.
Since then he has been creating havoc. Shaw has a single agenda – he’s anti-abortion – but beyond that he’s been mainly focused on creating problems.
So yes, Shaw is a lot like Clive Palmer – the man who was a climate sceptic one day and an Al Gore climate ambassador the next.
In June the major parties finally ganged up on Shaw and voted to suspend him from Parliament.
Obviously Palmer and his three senators won’t be suspended or expelled, even if the Abbott Government wanted to do such a fundamentally undemocratic thing.
The first and most important lesson of Victoria is simple: Abbott needs to go to an election as soon as he can.
When the Shaw crisis came to a head last month, Napthine said he would have liked to call an election six months ago. Spill the entire Parliament. Let a ballot resolve the crisis.
But in Victoria the key mechanism to resolve parliamentary instability in the Westminster system – an election called by the government leader or forced by the head-of-state – was eliminated when the previous Labor government introduced fixed terms.
Abbott doesn’t have that problem. And his problem is in the upper house not the lower. He can play the double dissolution card.
This would be a drastic strategy of course, especially because the polls make it look unappetising.
But the alternative may be a lot worse.
The new Senate has sat a single week but there must be Coalition hard heads thinking about the future.
So let’s play this out. (As a hypothetical, mind you, not as a prediction. Who’d be so reckless as to make predictions about the 44th Parliament?)
The carbon tax is likely to be repealed. But almost every piece of ancillary legislation to that repeal has been held up or explicitly rejected by the balance of power senators. They won’t abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, they won’t abolish the carbon tax compensation tax cuts, and they won’t abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Sure, in themselves these programs are subordinate to the main game. The Government gets its win from repealing the carbon tax.
Yet Palmer is certain to repeat his theatrics with every moderately controversial bill. The GP copayment. The medical research fund. The welfare reforms. University deregulation. Those dozens of agencies the Government has promised to abolish. Why wouldn’t Palmer make trouble? What else has he got to do with this time in parliament?
And that’s just Palmer and his senators.
Ricky Muir, Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan – none of them are fully signed up to the Coalition’s budget, let alone their broader program.
We could very easily get to Christmas without the substance of the May budget having been passed.
Could the Abbott Government negotiate its way through to parliamentary stability? Perhaps. But recall that last week wasn’t the first time the Abbott team’s negotiating skills have been wanting. The Coalition failed to negotiate minority government in 2010.
These are the Abbott Government’s parliamentary problems. The polls are a worse problem.
Before last week the mantra has been that it is a long time until the next election – polls change. Yet after last week that mantra sounds a little desperate.
More importantly, the Victorian saga shows that voters blame anarchy in parliament on the government. It’s not fair, of course – the Napthine Government is governing well enough. Yet the parliamentary drama overshadows everything.
It is certainly true that if Abbott went to a double dissolution, voters may give him an even more unpredictable parliament, stuffed full of Palmer senators and micro parties. If so, then the Coalition will just have to grin and bear it. Such is democracy. (For that matter, Shaw could be returned in Frankston, and the Victorian Parliament might be hung again.)
But what’s the alternative?
Laura Tingle wrote in the Australian Financial Review on Friday that “cornered ministers have resorted to arguing that no matter how untidy things were at the moment, the Prime Minister will get to the end of this year”.
An earlier rallying cry was that the Government just needed to get to July 1 when the senate changed over. Before that, the Government just needed to get to Christmas.
This is what governments say when they don’t have a Plan B.
Maybe Palmer will calm down. Maybe he’ll play ball. But remember the Gillard government’s hope that they would eventually find “clear air”?
They never found it.