The leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition has not had much to say in the weeks leading up to his monarch’s official birthday – or at least if he has, it has been drowned out by the cacophony coming from the government benches.
The confusion, gaffes and tergiversations over the budget continue unabated. Tony Abbott was heard to announce that once the D Day anniversary was out of the way, Australia would be open for business. Liberals were apparently bragging openly about how they had conned their National colleagues into accepting the return of the fuel excise levy.
And then the bomb throwers of the ultra right baited Malcolm Turnbull into massive retaliation, a kerfuffle which somehow provoked stories that a ministerial reshuffle was in the air. Abbott, who had been hoping for a few undisturbed photo opportunities on the battlefields of Normandy, had to deal with the fallout: he was distracted from his own distraction.
But amid all the sound and fury, smoke and mirrors, one utterance of Shorten’s remained, a small echo of reality: when Tony Abbott returns from his overseas tour, the budget will still be here. And not only that, but it may well be here for some time yet.
The old senate still has a couple of weeks’ sitting left, but clearly the government has given up on it. It may wave the easily avoidable temporary deficit levy through, and the Greens may negotiate the fuel excise levy in some form – it is a regressive tax, unfair and unpopular, especially in the bush, but it can be justified on both economic and environmental grounds.
But it looks as if that’s about it: the other nasties will have to wait for the new senate, which is scheduled to sit for just two weeks in July before emigrating for the winter break. Given that the serious dickering has barely started, and without the participation of the critical (in every sense) Palmer United Party, it would be almost insanely optimistic to believe that the cats could be herded up in that time; which will take us well into August, and no guarantee of any outcome even then. It’s a long time to string out a budget emergency.
So: what does Abbott do? His advisers will urge continued negotiation – tact, flattery, maybe even a Chinese meal. But that’s not the man’s style: his politics, like his boxing, is all out attack, no defence, no compromise. And so the threat of the ultimate deterrent has once more loomed over the political horizon: a double dissolution. Submit, and resubmit, the bills, and if the senate still rejects them, go to the people.
Given the state of the opinion polls, this is an idea which does not have much appeal to his backbenchers, or indeed to many of his front ones, still settling into their ministerial suites. But they are not the target: the point is to scare the crossbench senators into submission.
There is a belief – or at least a hope – that with bipartisan support from Labor, legislation to change the senate voting system can be passed to eliminate the risk of micro-parties ever gaining a foothold again. The Palmer United Party is also thought to be vulnerable: it has had its fifteen minutes of fame and even if the voters are not yet ready to get serious, they will look for a newer fad.
So if enough of the incoming senators can be persuaded that their newly acquired perks are at risk, they just may be scared enough to break ranks, and provide Abbott with the extra votes he needs. Well, they may: pure self-interest may prevail. But they may also be inclined to call Abbott’s bluff for what it is, because any more or less numerate observer understands that a double dissolution would be highly unlikely to break the impasse: indeed, it could easily make it worse.
Even if Abbott was able to turn the polling around and get his government re-elected with a majority in the House of Representatives, the senate would almost certainly remain a mess. The problem with a double dissolution is that the whole senate, not just half of it, is up for grabs: twelve senators in every state instead of six. And this means that the quota of votes required to be elected drops from the normal figure of just over 14 per cent to a little over seven and a half – hopefully still out of reach of the real fringe dwellers but perfectly achievable for genuine minor parties and credible independents.
The most recent Newspoll shows support for the Greens running at 12 per cent, and for others – which include the PUP – at a massive 15 per cent. The July senate will include 18 crossbenchers: it is unlikely that a double dissolution would decrease their numbers and it could well add to them, and Abbott would be taking a vey big gamble to suppose that they would be any more tractable than the present lot. And worse, he could easily lose a couple of his own senate team to Labor, making the process even harder.
He might hope that he could gain a sufficient majority in the House of Representatives to pass his budget bills at a joint sitting, as Gough Whitlam did in 1974. But a double dissolution involves betting the house on an outcome that would be at best pretty improbable and at worst total disaster. For a rational leader it is just not an option.
So what does our prime minister do? Well, currently, just keep hoping. Abbott continues to say with the air of a man reciting a natural law or a religious dogma, that he expects to get his budget passed, in full – or, if not quite in full, all the bits that matter – or, if not all of them, the serious ones: he will abolish the carbon and mining taxes, and he has stopped the boats.
And perhaps then the public will, as they say, move on. The rest will be consigned to the dustbin of history and broken promises. Budget emergency? What budget emergency?