It’s still a game of bluff and counter-bluff, but with the new Senate just over two months away, Clive Palmer is constantly raising the stakes for the Abbott government. As one observer puts it, he’s starting to look like the leader of the opposition – especially when Bill Shorten is preoccupied with what the ALP calls its “internals”.
Key pieces of the government’s program are on the line as Palmer points his shotgun in all directions, threatening to fire.
But Palmer’s own credibility is in the spotlight too. If he cares - which he may not. It is one thing to big-note before you have the power to do anything. It is another when real decisions must be made, which carry consequences.
It’s the same with the government. It can jawbone all it likes, but within months compromises will have to be cut with Palmer.
In the current exchanges, Palmer has declared flatly that he won’t support the government’s “direct action plan” on carbon, with its $1.55 billion emissions reduction fund. He says the direct action policy was a waste of money and the funds should be spent on pensions.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt responded by indicating the government might just weave the money into the budget - which Labor wouldn’t block, despite Shorten being coy when the matter was raised on the ABC’s 7.30 - and do without legislation.
This amounted to prodding Palmer with a very sharp stick. “That is nothing short of blackmail, raising fears that it has the potential to become a constitutional matter,” Palmer said. “If the government does this we will we will reconsider our position on repealing the mining and carbon taxes and this would create the potential for triggering a double-dissolution election.”
Tony Abbott before the 2013 poll pledged a double dissolution if he could not get his carbon tax repeal through.
We haven’t heard much of that in the last few months, as the government waits for the new Senate to do what Labor and the Greens will not - pass the repeal.
Having a double dissolution is the last thing the government would want any time soon, after a tough budget and with the opinion polls not great.
Neither would Palmer want it, despite his challenge. His strong Senate vote in Western Australia recently suggests he might do well in a double dissolution; on the other hand, voters are fickle, such a situation is polarising, and PUP could be blamed if people had to vote again.
But after the major parties were on the nose in WA, Palmer figures he can afford to be provocative.
He has to be careful, however. It simply would not be credible for PUP senators to vote against the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes.
His threat to try to stymie the direct action legislation is more serious for the government.
Ministers might be secretly saying, “Well, that would be a budget bonus!” But the direct action plan, inadequate and much criticised as it is, remains the only feather the government has to fly with on climate change and its commitment to reduce emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.
So it would probably do whatever was possible to put it into operation, and hope that Palmer would take out his displeasure on something relatively minor.
But setting up the emissions reduction fund without legislation would be tricky. The money might be in the budget all right, but existing structures would need to be used to get around the absence of a legislative base.
This week’s jousting highlights how, when Palmer finally gets his Senate chess pieces to play with - enough to determine the fate of legislation opposed by Labor and Greens - the government will require a strategy.
It will have to balance trying to shame and blame Palmer into submission on legislation and engaging more positively with him, throwing some carrots his way.
One who will find his life a whole lot more difficult after July 1 will be Eric Abetz. As government leader in the Senate, Abetz will be on the front line in day-to-day dealings with PUP. Previous hopes of employing a divide-and-rule approach to the PUP senators are unlikely to be realised in the short term (it could be another story after a while). Palmer will do his utmost to keep a grip on his team.
Liberal colleagues, especially in the Senate, will be watching closely how Abetz performs in this challenging task. He will be aware of that. He knows that in the longer term Attorney-General George Brandis would love to move from deputy Senate leader to the top job in the chamber.
The modus operandi of this government is quite often one of bluster, seeking to talk down any opposition. In Palmer they are confronting someone who can bluster with the best of them, and who will have power to match his big mouth.
The degree to which the government’s success is now hostage to Palmer – something inconceivable when, alienated, he left the Liberal National Party in the run-up to the election to set up his own party – must be putting the absolute frighteners into the Coalition’s leadership.