Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Running repairs on the budget omnibus

When it comes to retail politics our prime minister of one year still has a bit of catching up to do. On Tuesday, after a rare display of bipartisanship – Malcolm Turnbull insists on the Americanism of “reaching across the aisle” – he let Labor beat him to the punch. A chipper Bill Shorten broke the news of a significant budget deal that had just been brokered. He was able to claim the outcome was all Labor’s doing, delivering “budget repair that is fair”. The opposition, Shorten said, had secured “significant amendments to the government’s omnibus bill”.

Two hours later, the prime minister appeared in his parliamentary courtyard. “You will recall that the results of the election were such that the government does not have a majority in the senate,” he said. “We need to negotiate to secure the passage of legislation. We need to approach the parliament that the Australian people elected in a constructive and pragmatic manner.”

This puts into proper context his previous rhetoric. See: “We won the election. We have a mandate.” That mandate enables the party that wins a majority of seats in the house of representatives to form government and introduce its legislation. It does not mean other MPs are duty bound simply to rubberstamp these bills. The parties that win seats in the senate are perfectly entitled to review legislation according to their own voter-given mandates. Indeed, a parliament in which no party controls both houses has been the rule rather than the exception since World War II.

The message voters sent in the July election was surely a warning to both the major parties that they were fed up with them. Almost a quarter of all voters opted for an independent or minor party candidate. That left Labor tantalisingly close to government and the Coalition perilously close to a humiliating loss after one term. For weeks, however, it looked as if the treasurer hadn’t heeded the message. Scott Morrison rolled $6.1 billion of savings Labor had earmarked in the campaign into a Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill and then began bludgeoning Bill Shorten with it. He said passing the bill was a test of Shorten’s credibility. It looked as if he was trying to wedge Labor rather than seek its co-operation.

Behind the scenes, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen set to work. Motivating the government was the realisation that it simply had to go to the next election with the budget in better shape. For Labor, convinced it is on the cusp of winning next time, it has to invest more heavily in its economic credibility. Bowen faced considerable push-back from the Left, especially over proposals to deny the unemployed on a miserable $263.80 a week access to an energy supplement worth $4. The other huge area of concern was the massive cut of $1 billion to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

In the end, $800 million was restored to ARENA and the supplement retained for the jobless. But Labor dropped its opposition to a tighter means test on family payments. About 390,000 families on more than $80,000 a year will lose an annual supplement worth $726.35 for every child. This produced the biggest saving of the package: $1.7 billion over four years.

But one of the most significant concessions from the government was the dropping of the baby bonus. Bowen drew a line in the sand on it. The fact that the government agreed is surprising. The $367 million payment was a condition of the Coalition agreement and a key promise of the Nationals. When asked about it, Turnbull said the deal had been approved by the Coalition cabinet and party room. Senior National Darren Chester acknowledges it’s the price of budget repair.

But there could be another cost to the Nationals, particularly their leader and the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce. In a blatant piece of pork-barrelling he is promising to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority from Canberra to Armidale. The cost of relocating the 200 lawyers and scientists who spend their time evaluating data provided by big chemical companies is conservatively estimated at $24 million. Many don’t want to go, and their redundancies will add more expense. The head of the authority told senate estimates last year it could take up to six years to rebuild the workforce, to the detriment of farmers who rely on their expertise.

Joyce, who rails against Labor’s debt, deficit and profligacy, was forced to have a cost-benefit analysis done. On the ABC’s Insiders program he said he didn’t know how big that cost was, and anyway he wouldn’t be releasing it. No wonder: it is believed to have found more cost than benefit. This was something at which the deputy prime minister himself hinted. But he said a higher authority – the voters – had spoken. The Coalition had won the election promising the move and that was enough. On Monday, the treasurer threw Joyce under the proverbial bus.

He told Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon in parliament that the study cost $272,000 and that the matter was yet to be considered by cabinet. Fitzgibbon believes it’s a sure sign this piece of folly will not see the light of day.

If Fitzgibbon is right, the treasurer would be acting entirely reasonably in the context of budget repair. The argument of fixing the bottom line also gives a powerful angle to Labor’s flagged opposition to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. As he flew out to Canada and the United States, Shorten’s office was briefing that the leader would be recommending to the caucus they vote down the plebiscite in the senate. It is surely doomed. Labor joins the Greens, along with the three Nick Xenophon Team members, Derryn Hinch and Liberal dissenter Dean Smith. There may be one or two others – more than enough to stymie the move.

Adding to Labor’s determination was the decision by cabinet to allocate $7.5 million of taxpayers’ money each to the “Yes” and “No” cases. In another example of the Turnbull cabinet leaking like a sieve, the Herald Sun reported Scott Morrison, Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton rolled the attorney-general, George Brandis, and the prime minister, who were opposed to the idea. In the Coalition party room six MPs voiced their concerns that the government was being asked to fund a campaign against some citizens’ human rights. They were also worried there would be no checks on the “No” campaign’s advertising spiel. The decision blows out the plebiscite’s cost to at least $170 million.

To allay these fears, two 10-person committees, comprising government members, the opposition, crossbenchers and appointed citizens, will vet the “Yes” and “No” advertising. All well and good, but that doesn’t stop the “No” case funding its own additional ads, which TV stations will be obliged to run. And while they will need authorisation, if they are considered political advertising, forget “truth in advertising”. Already Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby is signalling that he will be mounting arguments about the consequences of “genderless marriage”. If whipping up fears about genderless marriage is not homophobia, what is?

Turnbull and Brandis both accuse Shorten of standing in the way of marriage equality and playing politics with the lives of gay couples. Excuse me? As Liberal same-sex marriage advocate Warren Entsch points out, it was Tony Abbott who inflicted the plebiscite on his party room a year ago. He “discerned” that this policy was the wish of the room after six hours of debate, despite the fact the debate was about a “free vote” in the parliament. The plebiscite was a devious device Abbott introduced late in the piece to thwart the parliamentary free vote. More than one Liberal MP confirmed that as many spoke in favour of a free vote as against it. Abbott was playing politics at its most brutal.

This week, Entsch argued passionately in a number of radio and TV interviews against public funding. It is the opponents of gay marriage who demanded and obtained the plebiscite. That should be enough, he said. They are now trying to manipulate its outcome and Turnbull has capitulated, as he did to win conservative votes in the leadership spill and to keep the Nationals on side after the coup.

Shorten quoted Justice Michael Kirby as he introduced his private member’s bill on marriage equality: “The plebiscite in itself is a discriminatory step driven by hostility.” This is a hostility Brandis and Turnbull believe will evaporate if the “Yes” vote gains a 50 per cent plus one majority. “Trust us,” is their guarantee, “it will quickly pass the parliament.” But this guarantee can scarcely be taken at face value. The conservatives have already said they will not vote against their consciences. It is, as Shorten says, an expensive, non-binding straw poll.

The final line, though, is this: it won’t happen and it will leave Turnbull with no policy to deliver marriage equality. What will he say in three weeks’ time when the Abbott-inspired subterfuge is defeated by the parliament?

His pleas for the opposition to respect the government’s mandate for this is blind to the mandate voters gave a majority of senators, whose policy was for the parliament to do its job. It is also blind to the mandate voters give politicians at every election to deal with this kind of thing themselves – the whole purpose of electing them in the first instance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "Running repairs on the omnibus". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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