CANBERRA OBSERVED: Clive Palmer, the would-be powerbroker
by national correspondent
News Weekly, March 29, 2014
Despite its overwhelming victory in last September’s federal election, the Abbott government’s legislative program has faced intractable opposition from the Labor and Greens majority in the Senate, which will last until July 1, 2014.
Apart from blocking the government’s bid to abolish the carbon tax and the mining tax, Labor and the Greens have also blocked the government’s attempt to restore temporary protection visas for asylum-seekers and to amend the Qantas Sale Act.
Qantas appealed for government assistance after losing $235 million in the second half of 2013, and announced drastic measures to reduce future losses.
Qantas blamed the losses on increased competition on domestic routes from the foreign-owned Virgin Australia, which itself is also running at a loss. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce asked the government to give Qantas either debt guarantees or amend the Qantas Sale Act to remove the cap on foreign ownership.
The government decided not to offer debt guarantees but agreed to amend the Qantas Sale Act.
Mr Abbott said the government would introduce legislation to repeal the section of the act — which Labor introduced in 1992 when the airline was privatised — that (a) limits foreign ownership of the airline to 49 per cent, (b) prevents foreign airlines holding more than a 35 per cent stake, and (c) limits any single foreign shareholder to 25 per cent.
He said that the change would allow Qantas — which has announced plans to cut its costs by $2 billion by shedding 5,000 jobs — to compete on a level playing-field.
However, Labor and the Greens announced their immediate opposition to the legislation, and said that they would vote it down in the Senate.
Bills which the government planned to introduce to accompany the abolition of the mining tax, including deferral of infrastructure spending and abolition of the Schoolkids Bonus, have also been abandoned.
The government will reintroduce its blocked legislation after the new Senate takes over on 1 July.
In last year’s Senate election, the Coalition significantly improved its numbers in the Senate, at the expense of Labor, but will still depend on the votes of minor parties and independents to get its legislation through.
The exact composition of the Senate post-July will depend on the outcome of the Western Australian Senate by-election, to be held on April 5.
In last year’s WA Senate election, three seats were won by the Liberals, with one each for Labor, the Greens and the Sports Party. But the WA Senate result was overturned after the court found that ballot-papers lost during the count could have affected the final result.
While the likely outcome of the by-election is unclear, an analysis by the ABC’s Antony Green predicts that while the Coalition will again win three seats, Labor could win two, with the remaining seat going to the Palmer United Party, founded by Queensland mining millionaire Clive Palmer.
If this happens, the loss of the Greens’ seat in WA will have a damaging effect on the party, which is reeling from the loss of almost half its vote in the recent Tasmanian state election.
The wild card in the Senate post-July could be the Palmer United Party. Since last September, Mr Palmer has been trying to build an independent bloc in the Senate, based on his party’s senators but including other independents. He is the party’s sole member in the House of Representatives, after winning the seat of Fairfax, Queensland, on preferences.
For some 40 years Mr Palmer was a member of the Queensland National Party, and later the Liberal National Party (LNP). In 1992 he was elected a life member of the Nationals. He was the party’s largest donor in Queensland for many years, and actively campaigned for the LNP.
After a very public dispute with the Queensland LNP government in 2012 over its alleged failure to facilitate the development of huge coal reserves he owned in the Galilee Basin, Palmer fell out with the LNP Premier, Campbell Newman, and fellow ministers, describing them as “the biggest crooks that have ever occupied the state of Queensland” (Brisbane Times, November 9, 2012).
This led to his resignation from the LNP late in November 2012, and the formation of his Palmer United Party to contest the 2013 federal election.
Mr Palmer has not let up on his attacks on the Queensland government. In a recent circular on Commonwealth parliament letterhead, addressed to “Men and Women of Queensland”, and delivered by post, Palmer accused the Premier, his deputy and the state’s Treasurer, of “lying to the people of Queensland about the extent of the state’s debt”.
In the past, the major parties have found that senators who serve six-year terms are more difficult to control than members in the House of Representatives, where party discipline is tighter.
It will be interesting to see whether Clive Palmer is able to build an independent bloc — and whether his own senators follow his wishes on particular pieces of legislation.
The Abbott government has granted a licence to Palmer’s company to export coal from the Galilee Basin; but whether that is enough to placate him is still to be seen.