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The two new ex-Liberal crossbench senators were meant to make the government’s life easier. But Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm have their own radically right-wing agendas. By Mike Seccombe.

Estranged bedfellows: Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm

It must have been the blow that most deeply wounded the government’s leader in the senate, Eric Abetz. Two right-wing, fervently anti-carbon tax, climate-change denialist senators, Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm, helped skewer yet another part of the government’s budget program on Wednesday: the planned repeal of some $2 billion worth of tax cuts, related to the carbon tax. They joined a motley gang of assassins, with Labor, the Greens, Palmer United Party and Ricky Muir. 

Hard it may be to imagine Abetz as Caesar, but when it happened you could almost hear his strangled voice saying, “Et tu, Brute?” Day and Leyonhjelm were supposed to be the government’s most dependable allies. They were the ones who hung with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the other right-wing coffee klatches that do so much to define contemporary conservative policy.

Day and Leyonhjelm were a big part of the reason the government had been so confidently predicting for the past six months that the new senate would be far more tractable than the old one. Instead, there they were, adding to the chaos just a couple of days after the new senate was sworn in, proving that nothing can be taken for granted. 

Not only would the new senate be numerically more difficult to manage – with a record 18 people on the crossbenches, in place of 11 – it was clearly going to be vastly more difficult ideologically. They range across a wide spectrum, the new senators: 10 Greens on the left, three unpredictably populist-right Palmerites, the centrist Nick Xenophon, the conservative Catholic John Madigan, the apparently politically unformed petrolhead Ricky Muir, and, well, out in right-field, Day and Leyonhjelm.

Of the class of 2014, these last two are clearly the most ideologically passionate, as well as being the scariest if your politics sit anywhere to the left of Ayn Rand.

If you think that an exaggeration,  then consider Leyonhjelm’s maiden speech, given later on Wednesday.

He portrayed himself as quite the philosopher, talking at great length about various political theorists – John Stuart Mill, Pitt the younger, David Hume and ancient Greeks among them – to explain his radical small government views.

Stripping away the philosophy, it came down to this: he didn’t like being told what to do, and he didn’t like having his very good income redistributed.

He hadn’t always thought the same way, he said. As a young man from a family that didn’t have much money, he thought “spreading other people’s money around was a good way to make life fairer”. In those days he was a Labor supporter, in large part because he didn’t want to be drafted to the Vietnam War.

But later, after having become a veterinarian, agribusiness consultant and company director, he had been “horrified” at the amount of tax he paid. And so he had come to believe in “limited government”.

Very limited government. Hence his action earlier in the day to knock off the personal tax increases that the government had proposed to offset the revenue loss from repealing the carbon tax.

“Reducing taxes, any kind of taxes,” he declared, “will always have my support.”

Taxation for most purposes, he said, amounted to an erosion of liberty. “It is eroded when our taxes are used to pay for things that others will provide, whether on a charitable basis or for profit,” he told the senate. “That includes TV and radio stations, electricity services, railways, bus services, and of course schools and hospitals.”

Leyonhjelm presented himself as the full libertarian package, a man who believes government has no role in determining whether we should vote or not, who we should love or marry, whether we should smoke dope, or drink, or gamble, euthanase ourselves or terminate our unwanted pregnancies. No welfare, no “sin taxes”, no plain packaging of cigarettes, no interference at all in what consenting adults do to or with one another in private.

Sounding a little like Charlton Heston at a National Rifle Association conference, Leyonhjelm moved on to talk about the right to bear arms and the right of the citizenry to rise up against “over-governing, over-taxing and over-riding ways”.

“Governments,” he said, “should instead seek to constrain themselves to what John Locke advised so wisely more than 300 years ago: the protection of life, liberty and private property.”

Leyonhjelm’s website outlines further policy positions. He would privatise endangered species and allow the hunting of “certain native animals” in order to give then “commercial value that ensures their survival”. He would fully privatise Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and all blood, organ and tissue supplies, as well as axe all preventive health schemes, public hospitals and regulation of private health insurance. Minimum wages would go, of course, and almost all employment conditions save some occupational health and safety regulation.

Leyonhjelm boasted to the senate that his election brought  “a wave of rejoicing in certain circles”, who knew he would “never support increases in taxes or a reduction in liberty”.

And indeed that is true. As we reported only a couple of weeks ago, the executive director of the IPA, John Roskam, was sure Leyonhjelm and Day would be a “breath of fresh air” in the senate.

More like a gale, really. The new senator has already signed up to sit on 13 senate committees. Whatever else one might say about him, there’s no denying David Leyonhjelm is diligent in pursuit of his goals.

As is the other half of the coalition of two, Bob Day. You just have to read his impeccable right-wing CV to see that. His current or former roles include: director of the Centre for Independent Studies, secretary of the Samuel Griffith Society, secretary of the H.R. Nicholls Society, chairman of the IPA’s Great Australian Dream Project, president of the Housing Industry Association, the Independent Contractors of Australia and a number of other organisations, including his pet project, the Bert Kelly Research Centre. Not to mention a bunch of roles with the Liberal Party, including a couple of tilts at elected office.

Like Leyonhjelm, though, Day is now a former Liberal. It was not an amicable separation. In 2008, after the retirement of Alexander Downer, Day stood for preselection for Downer’s safe seat of Mayo in South Australia. He lost to Jamie Briggs and promptly quit the party, claiming “manipulation of the preselection process”. He ran instead for the Family First Party. And lost.

Now, it needs to be said that Bob Day is not a full-on libertarian like his senate mate. When they agreed to team up as a voting bloc, the two men made it clear it was only on economic issues, not social ones. When it came to cutting taxes and wages they are as one; not so on drugs and sex and the like. 

Still, you might think Day’s party affiliation a bit of an odd one. After all, the Family First Party was founded in South Australia in 2001 by Pastor Andrew Evans of the evangelical Assemblies of God in Adelaide. Its primary mission was moral, not economic.

Those familiar with the record of Family First’s only previous senator, the rather quirky Steve Fielding, might recall that he fretted about the treatment of asylum seekers, favoured signing the Kyoto protocol on climate change, and opposed privatisation of assets and the Howard government’s industrial relations agenda.

In his maiden speech, Fielding lamented economic rationalism, consumerism, materialism. “How many Australians have asked, like I have: ‘Does my paid work dictate my life and, if so, is my family suffering because of it?’ ” he asked.

That, of course, was several years before Day, a multimillionaire housing developer, came on the scene. Later, Fielding changed some of his positions – notably on climate change – although not enough to please Day, who openly canvassed the prospect of expelling Fielding from the party. 

Day got a lot of clout very quickly in Family First. Australian Electoral Commission returns give some clue to the source of his influence. The South Australian branch of Family First took in about $395,000 in donations in 2009-10. More than half of it – $205,000 – came from Day. 

But that was small beer compared with what he has kicked in to the party’s federal coffers. In the same year, out of a total of $234,000 in donations, his company, B&B Day Pty Ltd, put in $200,000. The next year, B&B Day put in another $758,000. In 2011-12, there was a loan to the party of $1,089,000. And the year after that, a donation of another $381,775.

All up, that’s more than $2.6 million in donations and loans.

He was not just bankrolling the party, either. As he put it in an interview with Adelaide’s In Daily last September: “The organisational wing of Family First needed a bit of work, so I was very happy to do that, put together much more structure.”

And so Day became national chairman as well as chief financier. The piece documented a tour of the swish Day-owned building that serves as Family First’s HQ, as well as a bunch of other groups, nicely described as a “carefully curated constellation of South Australia’s most conservative organisations”. Among them is the Conservative Leadership Foundation, an outfit set up in 2009 by Cory Bernardi, the Liberal senator sacked by Malcolm Turnbull when he was party leader, and then sacked again by Tony Abbott for expressing views too right wing for him.

Bernardi uses the mini TV studio in the building to record his regular video messages.

You’ve got to think that, in the months and years ahead, it’s all going to pose more problems for the Abbott government’s legislative agenda.

Like they say, you reap what you sow. For five years Abbott opposition worked to create the impression of chaos and dysfunction in Canberra. And now, that’s what the Abbott government’s got.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Estranged bedfellows". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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