Australia’s Most Wanted: Rex Patrick and the Senate’s new power-block

by Michael West | Jun 17, 2019 | Comment & Analysis, Government

Six people exercise extraordinary power in the current parliament. They are the Senate cross-benchers, senators whose votes are wanted, and courted, by both the Coalition government and the Opposition – to either pass laws or block them. Michael West looks at the lie of the legislative land and talks with new parliamentary kingmaker Rex Patrick from Centre Alliance.

“Mandate is a word that gets bandied about in politics each side of an election,” says Rex Patrick. “It gets wheeled out by both Government and Opposition during each election campaign in an attempt to pre-charge policy initiatives that will involve controversy once a new parliament is formed.”

Indeed, the stunning, single-handed election victory by Prime Minister Scott Morrison now has government MPs and their apparatchiks in the press claiming a mandate to enact laws such as the $158 billion tax cuts package.

Though to get this, and all other legislation through the Upper House, the government’s leader in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, will need to scrape up another four votes from the cross-bench, senators who are not aligned to the major parties and the Greens. That’s four votes out of six cross-benchers.

Rex Patrick won’t make it easy. Patrick, who controls two of the votes with his Centre Alliance colleague Stirling Griff, is dismissive of this rhetoric of mandates. “Mandate season is over,” he says. So it is that a lot of politicians from both sides of the aisle are busy soliciting meetings with him and the other cross benchers. The horse-trading is in full swing ahead of Parliament’s first sitting day on July 2.

How the power-block votes – two from Centre Alliance, Jacqui Lambie, the two One Nation Senators and Cory Bernardi – will determine the course of government over the next three years.

“For my part,” says Patrick, “I’ll just ignore the distraction (of purported mandates) and focus on my job as a senator – looking at the merits or otherwise of every piece of legislation presented to me, and listening to my constituents.

“I’ll be doing that with a very clear focus on the interests and welfare of my home state. As a Senator for the State of South Australia, that’s my clear constitutional responsibility.”

It is this, duty to state constituents, which adds further nuance to the horse-trading and to where votes might eventually land. The Greens are not happy with the new senate mix, believing little will be done to address climate change in the current Parliament, although things are not entirely black and white. The cross-bench is a positive for the Murray Darling Basin.

The three senators from South Australia, including right-wing senator Cory Bernardi, although expected to vote with the government on most legislation – will put South Australia first on water issues.

Labor and the Greens need 38 votes to block legislation (and 39 to get things up such as Senate inquiries). As One Nation and Bernardi mostly vote with the Coalition, the new senate delivers particular power to Lambie and the Centre Alliance. There is also rumour of Jacquie Lambie joining Centre Alliance.

Lambie’s outlook; favouring workers and equality, is more aligned with Labor, although like Centre Alliance, she is strong on government integrity, media independence, while more conservative on the economy. One Nation, like the right of the Coalition, wants coal-fired power plants, but is no friend of Big End of Town tax avoiders and policy which favours multinationals.

Overall, while the new Senate power-block is not friendly for progress on climate (Queensland numbers are up and the moderates Tim Storer and Derryn Hinch are gone), it is well disposed to government integrity and cracking down on multinational tax dodgers.

To the most pressing of government legislation, the tax cuts; the way the $158 billion proposal is tailored does two things: one, it creates 11 personal income tax brackets, not four (as shown in the following story). Two, it flattens the tax scales and, by  delivering large benefits to higher income earners, leads to further inequality.

Bizarre: your true pay brackets revealed

While Mathias Cormann endeavours to wedge Labor to pass the full package, he is also working on the cross-bench, which gives Patrick et al some leverage to deliver other outcomes such as measures to tackle exorbitant gas prices. But Patrick isn’t buying the Government’s mandate rhetoric.

“Claimed mandates have short half-lives. In a few months, the word “mandate” will have largely disappeared from the political and media lexicon. Mandate season will have come and gone, consuming ink and internet bandwidth, but without much effect.”

Already, the Government appears to have backflipped on one promise: delivering relief to journalists, creditors and others from paying the world’s highest search fees to obtain public information about corporations.

Cormann had announced this himself with Kelly O’Dwyer last year, but in the dramatic aftermath of the raid on the ABC, the corporate regulator quietly issued a notification dumping the relief.

There is no official word from Cormann’s office yet but this would appear to be a case of the Coalition backflipping on one of its own mandates.

Is “mandate season”, as Patrick dubs it, already over? The actions of the former submariner since the election have matched his words.

Patrick, a strong advocate for whistleblower protection and the treatment of Julian Assange, was appalled at the AFP raids on the ABC and the home of a News Corp reporter, directly linking them to the Government, despite its protestations the AFP was an independent agency.

Then, when Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo rang him to remonstrate about his public criticism of the raids, Patrick went straight on the front foot and described the phone call publicly as intimidation.

The other big swing factor for legislators is the dark prospect that the economy is heading into recession and that policy should be overhauled to suit the times.

The Government originally framed the tax cuts as addressing bracket creep but is now re-nosing its message to describe the package as stimulus.

Budget 2019 was set in a pre-election environment where both major parties were marketing for votes. It has yet to be passed and economic circumstances are changing. So, with “mandate season” already in its twilight and a tight cross-bench in a powerful position, all bets are off.

Shorten to Frydenberg: I’ll see you, raise you and raise the tax-free threshold

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Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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