A million bucks to hobble Abbott's senate

The NTEU’s controversial Greens campaign, fighting against an absolute Coalition majority in the upper house, is one expression of the way the political landscape is being drastically redrawn.

The evening of June 26, 2013 was, for better or worse, an exhilarating moment in the corridors of offices occupied by the Canberra Press Gallery. The Rudd ballot result of 57 to 45 votes in his favour was announced at 9pm, followed by the announcement of Senator Penny Wong as senate leader nearly an hour later.

The tight cordon of journalist who had stood behind barriers waiting for the results were released by security staff and thundered back across Parliament House to their offices. I’m sure many, like myself, stared at their keyboards and wondered where the hell to begin writing this huge story.

Minutes into that process, a bell rang down the corridor. Normally, the bell brings grumpy hacks trudging out to a small alcove, where a 'staffer' will be typically be handing out bits of paper, announcing a media briefing or event of some kind.

However, this time we found Greens leader, Senator Christine Milne, and deputy leader Adam Bandt, setting up for a media conference right there in the alcove.

And they weren’t happy. Both put the issue of gender right at the forefront of their comments about what the Labor caucus had done in the Party Room over the preceding hours.

Milne began by saying: “People are going to be shaking their heads and asking what on earth has become of the government and the Labor Party.”

Bandt said the “New South Wales factional disease has spread to the whole nation” and complained that we had entered a new era in which a prime minister could be sacked by her own party purely based on opinion polls, with no reference whatsoever to policy achievements or ability to run the processes of government.

The pair reiterated a number of times that “we will do nothing to facilitate an Abbott government”, but their disgust at the way Labor had torn itself apart was palpable ... though not enough to hold the attention of journalists who heard that outgoing Prime Minister Gillard was about to speak, and stampeded off to the ‘Blue Room’ to hear what many observers have now described as one of her best speeches.

But the bitterness and determination of Gillard’s former allies in minority government, the Greens, has not diminished in the intervening weeks. There are now fighting for power on two fronts.

First, they expect, as many progressives do, to see Tony Abbott as the next prime minister of Australia. To the Greens, that means a comprehensive tearing up of the carbon pricing scheme they co-authored with Labor, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. It also means expected cuts to higher education – something they are foregrounding in their electoral pitch to voters this time around. And it means handing federal environmental approval processes back to the states, which they say will threaten many protected areas of natural Australia.

On the second front, the Greens see themselves as keeping a once-socialist party, the ALP, from drifting too far to the right under Kevin Rudd. If Rudd wins, they expect policy pragmatism to triumph in ways that dilute their often openly socialist view of the world.

But in particular, the Greens intend to try to appeal to female voters, and to keep underlining the fact that Australia’s first female prime minister actually got a lot more done that most of her male predecessors – particularly Kevin Rudd, whose chaotic management style is already starting to bring him unstuck on a number of issues, but primarily the tweaks to the carbon pricing package, the controversy over ‘tow-back’ of boats, and allegations of branch-stacking muddying his attempts to clean up New South Wales ALP corruption.

While the Greens are hopeful of retaining at least the lower-house seat of Melbourne, held by Bandt, any power they can wield in the next parliament will rest of their ability to retain the balance of power in the senate.

If Rudd wins, they will have that power regardless, and the anger and dismay Greens feel towards Kevin Rudd’s three-year campaign to destabilise the Gillard minority government will not be forgotten quickly. Rudd would have a rough ride from Greens in the senate.

If Abbott wins, the Greens are looking to Western Australia and South Australia as the states in which they must hold senate spots to prevent the Coalition winning an absolute majority in the upper house. While this has previously been thought impossible, opinion polls have swung so much in the past three years as to give Abbott this hope. Whether he could handle such power, or be drawn into Howard-style policy over-reach (think WorkChoices) is another matter.

The Greens’ attempts to hold ground in Western Australia and South Australia received a major boost yesterday, with non-Labor-affiliated union, the National Tertiary Education Union, pledging $1 million to help the Greens achieve this goal.

The move was agreed by a special general meeting of union officials in Sydney and is so controversial that some members have already quit the union – not all want their subs to be used to pay for Greens policy objectives.

However, as organiser Cathy Rytmeister says on the NTEU’s web site: “I really hope people DON'T resign from the Union because of this decision. I don't see it as a permanent "alignment", more a pragmatic, targetted way of protecting our interests by preventing Abbott from getting control of the Senate.

“Just to be clear (and to declare my interests), I am a Greens member but in keeping with members' wishes I voted against the motion. Nevertheless, now it has been voted on and passed, I think it's important that we all get behind the campaign.”

So the union will directly work to get Greens senators elected in Western Australia and South Australia – not because they necessarily like the Greens, but because they wish to “save the senate”.

The symbolic violence of the ALP’s actions on the night of June 26 is just beginning to work its way through progressive and Left politics. Allies are turning on each other, parties and unions are seeing fissures open up internally. And Kevin Rudd is no doubt beginning to realise the unintended consequences of his three-year march back to power. 

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