All eyes are on the PUP senators-elect but the government is bracing for dissent from its own. By Sophie Morris.

John Williams, Ian Macdonald, Cory Bernardi: enemies within

Senator John Williams addresses parliament  in March.
Senator John Williams addresses parliament in March.

In this story

Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams keeps chooks as a hobby. The first two he named for prominent women in his party, current and former presidents Christine Ferguson and Helen Dickie. Recently, he and his wife acquired another pair and named them Michaelia and Connie, after Liberal senators Cash and Fierravanti-Wells. 

So far, there have been no fights in the Williamses’ henhouse. But it’s early days. The Liberals and Nationals’ chooks have only just met. 

In the Coalition, things are not always so amicable. Since arriving in the senate in 2008, Wacka has been willing to speak his mind. Now it’s becoming a bit of an issue for Tony Abbott.

When Wacka mounted the case against Abbott’s generous paid parental leave scheme, the prime minister labelled him an “internal dissident on this issue”, playing down Coalition divisions on the signature policy that he has taken to two elections.

If Wacka were the only voice criticising the scheme, Abbott might be able to dismiss him. But his concerns are shared by at least a handful of Nationals and Liberal senators, some of whom are prepared to cross the floor if the policy is introduced in its current form.

What is more, Abbott is facing internal dissent on a range of issues, not just parental leave. Those divisions were on display this week when Liberal senator Ian Macdonald went toe-to-toe in the senate with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann over the government’s debt levy.

But it’s not just the Wacka and Macca show.

With all the focus on the incoming senate and its motley crossbench, it’s easy to overlook the fact that, even within the Coalition, there are some who are prepared to break ranks and speak out against government policy.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi was also critical of the debt levy this week and will have more to say about the future of the party when he addresses the National Press Club on July 17, an honour not usually extended to lowly backbenchers.

In the lower house, Liberal MP Dennis Jensen has slammed the government’s “foolish” and incoherent science policies.

Even if these renegades do not defeat or change government policy, the very fact of their criticism can damage the government more than any posturing from Labor, as it cannot easily be dismissed as the predictable carping of an opposition party.

Coalition critics of Bernardi, Macdonald and Jensen point out that they are disgruntled at having been left off Abbott’s frontbench. The same cannot be said of Wacka, who does not aspire to a frontbench role.

The former shearer, truck driver and farmer confesses he sometimes gets in trouble for speaking his mind. But he is not a destructive bomb-thrower. Rather, he is someone who digs in on an issue. He’s respected even by political opponents for his tenacity in pursuing the Australian Securities and Investments Commission over inadequate regulation of dodgy financial advisers in the big banks. 

 “Join me for lunch,” he says. “We need to fatten you up. Let’s have a buffet.”

And we do, in parliament’s sun-drenched and collegial members dining room. “Are we talking business here?” he says. I hesitate, assuming he might prefer not to be interviewed like this, surrounded by colleagues.

“Get your notebook,” he says. “It’s fine by me.”

Williams prides himself on plain-speaking, on having nothing to hide. It’s almost as if he wants to demonstrate that anything he says can be said here, publicly.

He says he likes Abbott, whom he describes as “fair dinkum and a good coalitionist”, even bestowing on him the ultimate compliment from a Nat: “He understands rural and regional Australia.”

Yet he is unconvinced by Abbott’s paid parental leave policy, arguing the country cannot afford it now and any funds would be better spent on childcare. “When I go and travel around I haven’t struck one person that said to me that it’s a good idea,” he recently told the ABC’s Lateline.

His suggestion that the policy be ditched in favour of an extension of the existing scheme, from 18 weeks to 26 weeks at the minimum wage, plus superannuation, was endorsed by Clive Palmer, but not by Abbott. 

The PM is sticking with his scheme, of payments up to $50,000, equal to six months of a mother’s wage. Whether it will make it into parliament is another matter, given the internal opposition and the uncertainty over whether the Greens will back it.

With Barnaby Joyce silenced by cabinet discipline, Wacka has emerged as the most outspoken of the Nationals. At lunch, he singles out another issue where he is not satisfied with government action.

“I’m impatient – very impatient – to see changes to regulation for foreigners buying our farmland. The selloff of our farmland is betraying our Diggers,” he says. “I never did have a lot of patience.
To me this must happen soon, or else I’ll get fidgety.”

In opposition, the Coalition promised more scrutiny of foreign purchases of farmland and agricultural businesses, flagging new thresholds above which the Foreign Investment Review Board would need to assess deals.

It is a sensitive issue for the Coalition – with free market Liberals uneasy about deterring foreign investment – and the government is yet to enact its long-promised policy.

When asked about it in the Coalition party room recently by Nationals MP Andrew Broad, Treasurer Joe Hockey replied that he had been busy with the budget.

Wacka is wily. He knows to pick his battles and that sometimes it is better to apply pressure internally. Asked whether he shares concerns raised that morning in the Coalition party room by Macdonald that the reintroduction of indexation on the petrol excise could disproportionately hit regional people, who must drive long distances, he responds: “Absolutely not.”

He adds that he is certain infrastructure minister and Nationals leader Warren Truss will ensure the revenue raised will benefit the bush. “I have total confidence that the infrastructure minister will be very fair in how it’s going to be distributed and show a fair bias to regional roads,” he says.

Macdonald, who is having a big day – speaking out in the party room, where he demanded modelling of the impact of the petrol excise on regional voters, and berating Cormann in the senate – is coincidentally lunching at the next table.

He must have come straight from the chamber. The new senate does not convene until July 7, but Macdonald has just given a foretaste of the drama it could contain.

The debt levy – a budget measure imposing an extra 2 per cent tax on those earning more than $180,000 – was guaranteed senate passage, with Labor’s support. But Macdonald made a point of registering his dissent in the most public fashion, providing the rare spectacle of a government MP interrogating a minister and remarking to Cormann that “with the very greatest of respect, can I just say that the arguments you raise really do not make sense”.

In this case, he was arguing that the debt levy should be applied to companies, not just individuals. But he has also raised concerns about paid parental leave. Having found his voice, Macdonald seems intent on speaking out.

“Why then are we introducing what many have said is a very generous paid parental scheme at a time when we have a debt crisis?” he asked in response to Cormann’s justification of the debt levy.

“You could easily divert the $5 billion that will be raised from the top 3000 companies to pay off Labor’s debt. That way, we perhaps may not need a three-year temporary levy on other Australians.”

In future, he hoped there would be an “honest tax system where additional money is raised and not this dodgy arrangement where we have a levy, not a tax, that is imposed on only a certain number of Australians and not on Australia’s wealthiest companies”.

The measure passed without a division but Macdonald’s performance underlined that the Coalition’s real challenges in the new senate may come not from the opposition or even necessarily the crossbenches but from within.

1 . Appeal for unity

Internal tensions are the real test of a leader. Abbott has in the past acknowledged that, during the Howard government, he had a reputation as a “licensed dissident” or “resident nonconformist”, so he can hardly throw the book at colleagues who dare to speak out. 

But confronted with polls showing the Coalition languishing in a post-budget slump, Abbott appealed for unity this week. He told Coalition MPs on Tuesday that they must “stick together” and stay the course to sell budget measures that might be unpopular now but are the right thing for Australia.

Adding to his budget headache, the government is also under attack from some groups it normally considers allies. The Australian Medical Association this week urged Abbott to scrap the GP co-payment, describing it as “unfair, unnecessary” and “poor health policy”. It is one of a number of budget measures that may never pass the senate. In the penultimate sitting week of the old senate, Abbott secured his first double dissolution trigger – after parliament twice rejected the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – though it seems unlikely he will be in any rush to use it to send the nation back to the polls.

Labor expels MPs who cross the floor but it’s tolerated in the Coalition, up to a point. John Howard faced revolts from Liberal wets over asylum policy and many floor-crossings from Joyce on issues ranging from competition policy to voluntary student unionism. Howard’s response was to invoke the “Liberal Party is a broad church” defence, while urging party discipline. 

Privately, some Liberals are wondering whether the party is broad enough to accommodate the ultra-conservative views of Bernardi.

Abbott restored him to the frontbench in 2009 but was forced to dump him again after his comments that recognising same-sex marriage could be a “slippery slope” to endorsing bestiality and polygamy.

Never very restrained, now Bernardi is free to speak out. He was invited to the Press Club in the anticipation he will say something newsworthy. He has flagged to the ABC he will argue that the major parties are letting down voters, who “want more principle in their politicians”.

Bernardi is close to fellow South Australian and Family First senator-elect Bob Day, and some Liberals are nervous he could jump ship to sit on the crossbench. Day admits Bernardi is increasingly isolated in the Liberals, saying: “Cory Bernardi is one of the few voices of reason. He’s becoming an island of reason in a sea of emotion.”

But he thinks that’s all the more reason Bernardi will stick with the Liberals, dismissing rumours he might team up with Family First.

“The Liberals are drifting and Cory knows he needs to be in there to keep them on the straight and narrow,” says Day.

There are now a few people in the government who see this as their role, though their definitions of the straight and narrow may differ.

For John Williams, some advice he received when he joined the senate has proved invaluable. Barnaby Joyce told him to “never chicken out on an issue”. In heeding such guidance it’s unlikely he’ll support Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme any time soon.

Things are heating up in the chook house.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 21, 2014 as "Wacka, Macca, Bernardi: enemies within".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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