Ben Oquist is one of the most savvy political advisers in the business. He used to be Bob Brown’s right-hand man and stayed on with Christine Milne when she became Greens leader, until they fell out.
Now - in one of the bizarre political twists of which there have been so many recently - Oquist, strategy director at the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, is helping Clive Palmer and his Senate PUPs on some of their agenda.
Oquist had a role in the crafting of Palmer’s climate policy, released at the spectacular appearance with Al Gore.
Attending strategy sessions at their office in the National Press Club building and joining the PUPs in the parliamentary dining room (but not on their payroll), Oquist’s hand is to be seen in Palmer’s Monday announcement that PUP will block key savings the government is seeking with the repeal of the mining tax.
The measures were originally to have been paid for from the tax and their abolition is included in the repeal legislation, which is the government’s next priority after the scrapping of the carbon tax.
Soon after Palmer’s Press Club announcement that PUP would oppose the scrapping of the schoolkids bonus, the low-income superannuation contribution and the income support bonus, the Australia Institute had a paper out detailing the dollars and regional impacts.
Keeping the low-income superannuation contribution would cost the budget $2.7 billion over the forward estimates; retaining the income support bonus would be a $955 million cost, while preserving the schoolkids bonus would blast a hole of $3.9 billion in the budget.
In addition PUP will oppose deferring the increase in the bottom tax threshold (from $18,201 to $19,401), at a cost to the budget of $1.5 billion over the forward estimates. This measure is in the carbon tax repeal package.
Just to stir some political trouble, the Australia Institute paper contains an analysis of the electorates most and least hit by repealing the low-income superannuation contribution (a measure designed to help those with insufficient income to benefit from the superannuation tax break higher-income earners enjoy).
Of the ten hardest-hit seats, five of the top six are held by the Nationals; the Liberals hold four of the ten. The electorates with the lowest proportion of low-income employees tend to be inner-city electorates and are held by the Liberal Party and the ALP (Solomon in the NT being the exception), the paper says.
It concludes that “there is a popular perception that the Labor Party represents the areas with low-income earners and is therefore more likely to pursue policies that redistribute income and resources towards the poor”. But the numbers “suggest otherwise and in fact it is the National Party that should be the champion of the low-income earner”.
The paper doesn’t have to make the point that Nationals electorates could be particularly vulnerable to PUP in the future.
As the government moved a step closer to the repeal of the carbon tax - once the new Senate, after some fits and starts during its first sitting day, finally gave priority to the debate - its prospect of getting budget measures through the upper house was deteriorating further, thanks to Palmer’s latest position.
And Palmer was showing that when it comes to playing the political game, he will find the most unexpected allies and sources of advice. Or they will find them, when interests coincide across the political spectrum.
Oquist insists that he and the Australia Institute provide policy advice to any side of politics.
“For example, the institute is more than happy to provide economic analysis to the Palmer United Party when it comes to issues like low-income superannuation and the low-income support bonus.
"But the Palmer senators know what they are doing - making some popular announcements and playing themselves into the centre of Australian politics,” he says.
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