Clive Palmer may have all sorts of motives but one surely is to drive Tony Abbott to distraction.
As Palmer put it on Monday, after sending Joe Hockey’s chief of staff Grant Lovett on his way to do more work on budget measures, the government had found it quite surprising that it did not have the power to govern – that it had to go to PUP on things.
Perhaps not so much surprising as infuriating and humiliating.
Palmer announced, following his talks with the Hockey officials about the mining tax repeal package (where he wants to keep some spending measures), that there is no agreement at this stage. The government would bring back options.
Joe Hockey kept in touch with Palmer by text. The Treasurer has been out of the national news cycle since Friday’s apology, although he did local media in Sydney and spoke to Chinese TV. His space was filled by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who was on the ABC at 5.40 am Perth time on Monday.
Abbott continued the government’s mixed signals. “We’re prepared to talk to the crossbench senators. What we’re not prepared to do though is sell out the fundamentals and the fundamentals are that we have absolutely got to get this budget crisis back under control.” Which could mean anything.
The budget story has a long way to run. But at this point Palmer has ministers where he wants them, traipsing north to see him (with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison next).
On another front, Palmer put Abbott in his place on renewables, after a report the PM wants to scrap the renewable energy target. “They can’t do anything unless we agree with it, basically, and we’ve said we’re not going to get rid of the RET.”
As if this wasn’t enough pain, Palmer announced he was convening a “world climate change convention” on November 17, immediately after the G20, focused on the need to have an international emissions trading scheme.
The one issue Abbott wants to play down at the G20 is climate change.
The review of the future of RET is setting off yet another row for the government to manage. The Australian Financial Review on Monday said Abbott had asked Dick Warburton, the inquiry’s head, to do more work on terminating the RET, after the review leaned towards just scaling it back.
It is hardly wise for the government to be stirring this battle, especially as the PM’s office has been telling ministers not to open new areas of conflict. Just-released modelling commissioned by climate and conservation groups has shown that cutting or ending the RET would hand big extra profits to coal power stations without bringing price relief for consumers.
If Palmer sticks to his position it is an argument that can only have downside for the Coalition – it won’t be able to make the change it might wish but will come under fire anyway (renewable energy is popular with the community).
Cormann said on Monday: “The government remains committed to the renewable energy target, that is our policy”. Whether this holds when the government soon considers the Warburton report remains to be seen.
There is also the question of what the RET is. It was set at 20 per cent but because of declining energy demand, under current arrangements about 28 per cent of national electricity would be coming from renewables by 2020-21. The government could argue for bringing it back to 20 per cent and still claim it was in line with the target. But Palmer on present indications would not wear that.
The government’s frustration about the budget logjam was evident in comments by Trade Minister Andrew Robb to The Australian about sovereign risk.
“We are in the process of desperately trying to restore our gold standard. We are trying to correct a perception that was starting to evolve. The minority government of the past three years played a role in that. If the current Senate continues as it has, it will affect the perception of sovereign risk in Australia,” Robb said.
There are a couple of points to make about this.
It is unwise for a cabinet minister to be talking in these terms, which are exaggerated (just like the government exaggerates the “budget crisis”). The minister’s comments could be viewed overseas more negatively than the Senate situation.
But also, it is a case of pot and kettle. The Coalition in opposition was willing to fight hard against many Labor measures. The only reason it could not be even more effectively negative was that it did not have the numbers in the Senate.
There is an argument to be had about how far the Senate should go in thwarting a government. But complaining about being obstructed by others when in the past you have played as roughly as your circumstances allowed doesn’t wash.
Michelle Grattan is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.