Grattan on Friday: Abbott government feels the pain from PUPs with teeth

The government found itself in a bind in the Senate because of Clive Palmer and his PUPs. AAP/Lukas Coch

The first sitting week of the new Senate has been a humbling experience for a government often too cocky for its own good.

After fighting desperately to have the carbon tax scrapped by Thursday, a last-minute Palmer United Party amendment meant the tax’s life has been extended for at least a few more days. The government is willing to accept the amendment but the Clerk of the Senate advised that, constitutionally, it couldn’t be introduced in the upper house.

On other fronts, the Senate this week voted to keep a 2015 tax cut to compensate for a carbon price that won’t be there, with bad consequences for the budget.

And Labor senator Sam Dastyari managed to table the government’s regulations changing Labor’s Future of Financial Advice (FoFA) legislation. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had openly admitted he was delaying the tabling until he’d had time to lobby the crossbenchers on the regulations, which face disallowance.

Tuesday’s address to the joint houses by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a warm occasion during a bad week for the government. But even this did not come trouble-free. Australia’s drawing noticeably closer to Japan on security matters inevitably raises Chinese concerns, and a positive wartime reference to the Japanese by Tony Abbott became controversial.

Abbott and Abe left Canberra on a Western Australian mining visit where, looking like a couple of models in an advertisement, they posed in RM Williams boots. Abbott left his ministerial colleagues Eric Abetz (Senate leader), Greg Hunt (Environment Minister) and Mitch Fifield (manager of government business in the Senate) to shepherd through the carbon tax repeal. It proved too hard a task.

After failing to get a vote on Wednesday (thwarted by Motoring Enthusiast Ricky Muir), one can only imagine the ministers’ anxiety when Thursday dawned. The motion to guillotine was moved, this time successfully. The elusive goal was within grasp – but oops, suddenly it slipped away.

Palmer, looking for all the world the cowboy from the north in his brightly checked casual shirt, loomed to complain that PUP’s Thursday morning production of a new amendment had elicited a “violent reaction” from the government – ministers “were in our Senate leader’s office, I was receiving phone calls and nasty conversations”.

The amendment toughens provisions to ensure power companies would pass on savings from the repeal to consumers; failure to do so would incur a fine of 250% of the amount withheld. It was the penalty that created the technical problem: the Senate can’t impose a tax – it must be introduced in the House.

The government found itself in a bind in the chamber, as confusion raged outside it, with Palmer huddling with his own senators and ministers (one person on the fringes described it as a “rolling maul”). The Coalition was playing for time, rather than trying to deny time to others. As Labor’s Penny Wong put it, “It takes a special blend of arrogance and incompetence to seek to both guillotine and filibuster in the same debate.”

In the end nothing could be done. The government wouldn’t buck the Clerk’s advice; Palmer wouldn’t accept the suggestion that PUP pass the legislation, trusting the government to deal with the amendment in the lower house next week. PUP withdrew the amendment, citing the Clerk. The legislation was voted down.

It will be reintroduced in the House of Representatives on Monday. Abetz and Hunt faced a news conference with Hunt saying the government was “calmly, methodically determined to continue to proceed until the carbon tax is repealed”. The rote line sounded absurd in the context of the day. Abetz declared that “hopefully” the repeal would pass by the end of next week.

Some on the Liberal backbench wondered about the government’s gung-ho tactic of scheduling the sitting so early after the Senate changeover. Now it didn’t seem so clever.

The government will have to be more savvy in dealing with PUP. But this is easy to say and hard to do. They are not there to make Abbott’s life less difficult. Whether Thursday’s snafu was a product of PUP’s inexperience or Palmer’s cunning, the incident just reinforced the point that Palmer and PUP are a handful.

Indeed, being a handful is what Palmer does. His modus operandi is to cause trouble for his former party, take centre stage at every opportunity, raise the stakes, change his mind, reverse direction without a blush. He throws himself at every camera, he’s a constant quote machine (he is sensitive only on allegations of Chinese money finding its way to his electoral spending – he walked out of Thursday’s ABC 7.30 interview when the matter was raised).

The government would love to get stuck into him but knows it can’t afford to; the word put out is to go easy on the PUPs.

It’s not a two-way street. Asked how the week had been, PUP senator Jacqui Lambie unloaded on Abetz, saying “I’ve asked Tony Abbott to sack him immediately. He’s been an absolute disgrace.”

Palmer finds common cause with some interesting people. He stood beside former Liberal leader John Hewson on Thursday launching an Australia Institute report on renewables; Ben Oquist, former Greens senior adviser and now The Australia Institute strategy director, is helping him on various issues.

Initially viewed as a populist of the right, Palmer has moved leftwards, as can be seen from PUP’s positions, which include keeping the climate change architecture (despite being committed to repealing the tax), supporting renewable energy, and preserving the schoolkids bonus and superannuation help for low-income earners.

We know Palmer is going to give a rough trot to controversial budget measures but, as things appear now, it looks as though other legislation could also be very problematic.

Palmer has Tony Abbott, who used to treat him in cavalier fashion, just where he wants him - at the mercy of an unpredictable Senate but unable to realistically take it on with the threat of a double dissolution because on present polling the government could lose the resulting election. If it won, it could face a Senate as difficult as this one.

The repeal issue basically came down to a battle about timing, but the Palmer message was, as Lambie crudely put it, “If you want to come into the kennel with the PUPs, be prepared to be chewed up and spat back out.”

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with Environment Minister Greg Hunt, here.

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