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View from The Hill

Palmer bitten as PUP senator breaks the chain

Senator Jacqui Lambie has further complicated an already difficult Senate. AAP/Alan Porritt

The full ramifications of Jacqui Lambie’s decision to leave the PUP kennel to sit as an independent won’t be clear for some time. Obviously, however, it is a major blow to Clive Palmer’s power.

It further fragments and complicates a Senate that’s already a hellhole for the government. But by making the Senate more fluid, it also opens potential opportunities.

The rupture, always seen as eventually on the cards, was hastened by specific issues.

Lambie and the other PUP senators voted earlier this year to prevent the disallowance of the government’s controversial financial advice regulations that watered down Labor’s FoFA legislation. But after a lot of reaction she became increasingly doubtful about what PUP had done.

Lambie also disagreed with PUP’s backing for the present Renewable Energy Target. Palmer said PUP wouldn’t vote to change the target this term, but Lambie argued it disadvantaged high-energy-using Tasmanian businesses and could cost jobs.

Her threat – which weakened PUP bargaining power – to vote against all government legislation unless the Coalition revisits its pay deal for the Defence forces also became a point of friction with Palmer.

Since his three PUP senators arrived on July 1 Palmer has been a source of frustration for the Coalition. The government needs the support of six of eight crossbench senators to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. Three can block. PUP’s opposition to the Medicare co-payment and the deregulation of higher education meant these measures had no chance of getting through while it stayed firm.

But the government also struck key deals with Palmer – on the financial advice regulations and to pass its direct action plan to curb emissions. It felt it had a handle on him. He was the go-to man.

Now Palmer’s power is much reduced and more tenuous. His ability to block becomes dependent on his alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir. That alliance was always seen as Palmer’s insurance policy against a defection, because even initially Lambie seemed problematic over the long term.

But Muir broke away last week, when he and Lambie voted to sink the financial advice regulations. With Palmer’s clout heavily dented and Muir’s confidence increasing, the Motoring Enthusiast senator is likely to become more of a free agent.

On one interpretation the non-Green Senate crossbenchers now divide into four blocks: remaining PUPs Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang; independents Nick Xenophon and (ex-DLP) John Madigan, who often work together; Family First Bob Day and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, both right of centre, who collaborate on some issues, although they differ on social questions; and Lambie and Muir, who are unknown quantities for the future.

There is potential for Lambie, Xenophon, Madigan and Muir to do some common muscle flexing. Lambie said on Monday that she had worked with Xenophon, always got along with Muir, and her staff had good relations with Madigan’s office.

The shake-up increases the potential influence of Xenophon, who last week spoke of the “coalition of common sense” when Labor’s Sam Dastyari and he bedded down the disallowance alliance. Generally respected across politics, Xenophon is a good organiser.

For the government, trying to extract advantage from the Lambie shift, at least in the short term, will be a challenge, especially given her defence pay threat. She’s also reaffirmed she won’t move on the co-payment, higher education or the government’s tough welfare measures.

Against this, she’s very aware her vote will be sought and if she is totally locked by her defence pledge she loses her bargaining power to win deals for Tasmania (and follow a trail blazed by another Tasmanian independent, the late Brian Harradine).

She has indicated she’s open to negotiations on the Renewable Energy Target and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The suitors will come calling. Dastyari had a lot of success when he flew to Tasmania to seek her support on the disallowance.

The government starts with the disadvantage that Lambie intensely dislikes its Senate leader Eric Abetz. “We don’t get on, full stop,” she said.

She warms more to Environment Minister Greg Hunt, with whom she had a (prearranged) meeting on Monday.

They discussed the RET – and bumblebees. Lambie wants a federal provision changed that stops Tasmanian horticulturists releasing bumblebees into their glass houses to facilitate pollination.

She also asked Hunt to speak to Tony Abbott about defence pay. Hunt suggested she seek a meeting with Abbott. Lambie later said the Defence force issue could be resolved with A$121 million, which she described as “a walk in the park”.

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