02 June, 2023
Paul Bongiorno: Reckoning time in the Senate strands the Coalition


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A frustrated Anthony Albanese summed up the state of play in the Australian Parliament as key issues are coming to the final votes in the Senate, and it should give anyone who wants to see the Liberals return to government any time soon pause for thought.

The Prime Minister in question time said he would continue to implement his agenda “to take the government forward, unlike those opposite who just say what they are against and haven’t come up with a single constructive idea in the past 10 months”.

Intense negotiations are continuing between the government, the Greens and the crossbench in the Senate over the safeguards mechanism to have 215 of our biggest polluters cut their emissions by 30 per cent in the next seven years.

The Greens believe the proposal is next to useless and, buttressed by the latest dire scientific research, say they will support it only if new gas and coal projects are banned – though they are still at the negotiating table.

That has alarmed business and industry groups.

Business as usual

The Business Council of Australia says the mechanism is the best architecture to achieve reductions – not surprising because Labor’s policy is basically built on the BCA’s design.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says the government must “categorically reject Greens proposals to block new gas and coal projects” because of the threat this poses to electricity supply in the transition to renewables.

ACCI’s chief executive Andrew McKellar says only a bipartisan approach to energy policy will “move us towards a net-zero future”.

In a scarcely veiled swipe at the Liberals he says “no one has proposed any other way to achieve emissions reduction goals in an efficient way. For the sake of certainty and to meet emissions reduction goals the safeguards mechanism must pass,” McKellar says.

But these admonitions from business are kid gloves stuff. They baulk at telling it as it is: The Coalition is playing a cynical wrecking role of Australia’s ability to contribute more meaningfully to reducing global emissions.

The BCA’s Jennifer Westacott, like ACCI’s McKellar, say they will work constructively with the Coalition, whatever that means in this context.

McKellar rejects suggestions made by some Coalition MPs that business would privately rather see the mechanism fail anyway.

He, like Westacott, is advancing the overwhelming majority views of their member organisations.

Action needed

There has been behind-the-scenes lobbying of Peter Dutton with a hard-nosed assessment put by a former senior adviser to the Liberals that unless they recalibrate their position on climate change action they will have no hope of winning back the swathe of seats lost principally to teal independents but also the Greens and Labor.

On Monday the teals joined the independent Senator David Pocock in calls for a stiffening of the government’s proposals – a stark contrast to the denialist intransigence of the Liberals.

It is clear from the Opposition’s question time tactics they believe the spiralling cost of electricity will over-ride any voter concerns about catastrophic climate change.

It’s a dangerous gamble.

Anthony Albanese is not sitting on his hands. He had a ready answer to a number of questioners blaming him for not delivering bigger electricity price cuts.

It is “incomprehensible”, he said, that his opponents voted against a billion dollars worth of energy price relief before Christmas that is already delivering.

But it’s not only on this issue that the Liberals and the Nationals find themselves stranded in the Senate.

Voice tactics unravel

Months of dissembling over support for the Voice to Parliament referendum are coming to an end.

The government has refused to agree to taxpayer funding for official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns.

This is a spurious deal-breaker because claims that it locks in this position for future referendums do not hold water.

There is nothing to stop a future government and parliament legislating different arrangements.

The simple fact of the matter is Peter Dutton shares the view of the conservatives in his party room who are opposed to giving First Nations people the sort of constitutional recognition they arrived at in the process that led to the Uluru Statement From The Heart.

Coalition senators will now vote against the referendum machinery act and will most likely be given a conscience vote on the actual wording of the referendum when it is introduced in Parliament next week.

If they are not, there will be defiant floor crossings.

Meanwhile, the teal independents have already launched grassroots campaigns in their seats to shore up the ‘Yes’ vote in a competition for whose electorate will return the biggest majority.

It is not only the Prime Minister who finds the Opposition’s tactics incomprehensible.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years experience covering Australian politics

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