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‘Preference whisperer’ says Ricky Muir prepared to help the government if it helps him

Senator Ricky Muir is seeking a good working relationship with the Coalition government. AAP/Alan Porritt

As senators prepare for tomorrow’s swearing in, Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir’s strong message to the government is that he’s prepared to help it if it helps him.

Muir has a formal alliance with Clive Palmer’s Senate PUPs, but his senior adviser Glenn Druery made it clear today that Muir is seeking to have a positive working relationship with the government.

“We are not here to have a fight,” said Druery, the “preference whisperer” who puts together deals to get micro players elected at upper house elections, including the Senate at the 2013 election. “We are here to get along.

"Help Ricky achieve some good things from time to time – some things he’s interested in – and I believe a good working relationship can be established.

"You are there to do things. Some people call it horse trading. I prefer to call it getting along,” Druery told The Conversation.

Muir (accompanied by Druery) last week had his first meeting with Tony Abbott. After it the Prime Minister described him as “a decent, salt-of-the-earth country Victorian who is going to do his best to make contribution to his state and his country in the Senate”.

Issues on which Muir will be looking for wins include road safety, driver education, and help for displaced car manufacturing workers.

In general, “honey is a much better elixir than vinegar. But there are occasions when a little squirt of vinegar in the face is necessary,” Druery said. There would be issues on which Muir will vote against the government. Although he hasn’t been briefed yet, the crossbench senator is hostile to the Medicare co-payment and the denial of unemployment benefits to people under 30.

Druery warned it would not be appropriate for Muir to be “bullied, harassed or ignored”.

Palmer still has a key balance of power role – when Labor and the Greens are opposed to legislation – even without Muir’s vote. But Muir is considered insurance, especially given the potential unpredictability of Tasmanian PUP Jacqui Lambie (who has described Tony Abbott as a “political psychopath”).

The secretary of the Motoring Enthusiast Party, Keith Littler, has been anxious to emphasise Muir’s closeness to PUP, recently initiating a statement in which Muir said: “Whilst we are prepared to talk with everyone in the government for a best-possible outcome for the motoring community, this shouldn’t be construed as a lack of solidarity with the PUP”.

Muir has put both Littler and Littler’s wife onto his staff.

The new senator’s other staffers include former NSW upper house member Peter Breen, who was helped into his seat in 1999 by Druery’s preference deal. One Muir staffer formerly worked for independent senator Nick Xenophon, another for federal and Victorian Labor MPs.

The government, anxious to deliver as quickly as the new Senate will allow on its pledge to repeal the carbon tax, is set tomorrow to bring the legislation out of a committee, so it can get a vote this week, rather than next.

Palmer confirmed PUP will support the debate being accelerated. “The carbon tax has been discussed for years. People want to get rid of it,” he said today.

In his Sunday message Abbott said the repeal was expected to be voted on this week.

Eric Abetz, the government’s leader in the Senate, said that trying to defer the vote was “the last hurrah of the Labor-Greens majority in the [old] Senate”. The Coalition had said before the election that the very first item of business that it would put to the new parliament was the repeal of the carbon tax. “It therefore is absolutely consistent for us to put it up as the first item for the new Senate.”

Palmer has promised PUP will support the repeal so long as the legislation ensures the savings are passed on in full to consumers.

But after the carbon tax is killed there is likely to be argument eventually about whether in fact the average household has got the full $550 saving promised. Environment Minister Greg Hunt said today: “The average Australian family will receive a $550 reduction over the course of the year, on the advice from Treasury. We are completely confident that that will occur”.

The Palmer show will continue tomorrow when Palmer appears at the National Press Club.

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