Pyne will intensify lobbying over higher education amid PUP turmoil

Senator Glenn Lazarus has left the Palmer United Party. AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Senate numbers have been thrown into new confusion and Clive Palmer’s power much weakened with the defection of the Palmer United Party’s Senate leader, Glenn Lazarus.

Announcing he would become an independent, Lazarus declared: “I have a different view of team work”. Later he suggested he had been bullied by Palmer.

Palmer accused him of having “spat the dummy” and said he should leave the Senate.

Lazarus, from Queensland, quit immediately after PUP national director Peter Burke on Thursday sacked Lazarus’ wife Tess, who worked for the party and had been a candidate in the Queensland election.

Burke said she had been dismissed “primarily because she failed to comply with the terms of her employment”. “Senator Lazarus’ resignation followed thereafter, with the reason being self-evident,” he said.

But it is believed that Palmer’s “captain’s calls” have been irritating Lazarus, such as the announcement recently that PUP would abstain on all legislation – a decision which was never implemented and quickly reversed.

Asked by Alan Jones if he could “only cop so much bullying”, Lazarus said: “that’s exactly right”. The former rugby star said: “I just felt in order to be able to serve the people of Queensland and to do my job like I played footy … I just felt I needed to resign and move forward as a senator.”

The loss of Lazarus means that PUP has gone from its original three senators to only one, Dio Wang from Western Australia. Last year Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie defected to become an independent. Also the PUP alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s senator Ricky Muir has loosened.

While the implications of Lazarus turning independent are hard to predict, freeing up a number should provide a greater opportunity for the government in its negotiations to get the six out of eight crossbenchers it needs when Labor and the Greens oppose legislation.

An early test will be the higher education legislation, set for a vote next week. But Lazarus has been solidly against the changes, and would not be expected to switch.

All eyes will now be on the future of Wang. He has been more favourably disposed to the university reform package, although he has been bound by the PUP’s hardline position.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne said he hoped that now at least Wang might be free to support the legislation. He said Wang had indicated publicly he had lobbied Lazarus and Palmer to back the reforms.

Pyne said he would renew his efforts to persuade Lazarus and Wang to vote for the legislation. Lazarus has so far refused to meet him, at one point lashing out at Pyne’s barrage of texts over the legislation.

This legislation still appears set to go down, regardless of whatever Wang might do, with at least Lambie, Lazarus and independent Nick Xenophon presently against it.

Palmer said Lazarus was “in a public position where he’s taken a public stance and gone to the election and said he’ll do certain things. He’ll be with our party and he’ll be with our brand.

"Now if you’re honest about that you should stick with that. If you change that position it’s not fair to the people of Queensland.”

Palmer said that before the 2013 election the PUP endorsement processes were not as developed as now “and unfortunately many of the candidates were opportunists interested in themselves more than the ideas the party represented”.

He said all the politicians from major parties who had sought to undermine PUP would never have left their party “because they have the political experience to know that only within a party structure can real change be achieved for Australia”.

He was confident that at the next election “our team will be stronger, tougher and more independently, committed to what we stand for without the individuals mainly concerned with themselves and what they can get”.