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Underdog PUP could bite Abbott


Clive Palmer billboardFor all their differences the Palmer United Party (PUP) and the Greens each suffer from widespread disdain and criticism in mainstream commentary. Yet together they now boast the support of 20 per cent of the community (up from 14 per cent at the last elections). And they now hold the future of the Abbott Government's legislative program in their hands, including the Budget, failing agreement between the major parties.

The Government needs 39 votes in the new Senate but only has 33 of its own. Effectively the support of either minor party will suffice without Labor. The nine Greens Senate votes will clearly do the job and although PUP's four votes will fall short by two the Government probably will often be able to find two more from among the other four Independents and micro party senators.

The Budget will be the first test. The negotiations will set the scene for the remainder of this parliamentary term. Attention will continue to focus on PUP and the Greens. They will face the usual problems for minor parties. These include handling the stress, maintaining party unity, marshalling staff resources, keeping up with the flow of government business, and having enough articulate senators to present the party's case effectively to the public. Outside of the parliament the usual worry for minor parties is to keep their own members happy.

Back in the early Howard years the Australian Democrats stumbled in a number of these areas, especially parliamentary and party unity.

PUP suffers from a number of potential weaknesses. All their senators are new to the job. Their leader is outside the Senate. They reckon they have insufficient staff. And they have no clear unifying ideological framework.

But they continue to be underestimated by both the major parties and the media. In the past similar foolish underestimation of political figures outside the usual mould, like former Qld Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and former Independent and then One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, rebounded badly on the major parties.

Palmer, an enigma, has already survived longer than many of his critics last September thought he would. In fact he has grown in confidence and reputation rather than walking away or falling in a heap. He has a special eye for publicity and the media are drawn to him almost despite themselves. His new senators should maintain party discipline at least in the short term because Palmer effectively 'owns' them. Individually they may show surprising competence as the Tasmanian Jacquie Lambie has already done.

The Government would do well to treat PUP more respectfully if it wants to strike deals. That was notably missing in some of Treasurer Joe Hockey's patronising post-Budget remarks. Underdog status for PUP may well appeal to the Australian electorate.

The Greens are a larger, more experienced and professional group of senators than PUP. Like the Democrats in the late '90s they probably expected to be shunned by a majority Coalition Government from July onwards.

If things settle down that might still turn out to be the case. But at least for a while the Greens have been dealt some opportunities to play a significant negotiating role. The Budget experience may set the Greens up for a win-win situation on some government legislation.

What the Greens have to guard against are some of the traps that the Democrats fell into. They look pretty disciplined at the moment but that can't be guaranteed. At the first sign of disunity over policy or leadership the Government will try to find ways of encouraging one or two Green senators to break ranks with Christine Milne and Adam Bandt, the party leaders.

We know little about PUP members, but there is no indication that they will interfere much with their senators' work. However, the Greens have an engaged and articulate, policy-savvy membership. Success in negotiations with the Abbott Government is a two-edged sword. They cannot afford to slip into irrelevance but nor must their relationship with the Government ever look too cosy. Greens members are feisty and some of them remain more attuned to anti-government community protest than parliamentary manoeuvring.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: Clive Palmer, Palmer United, Greens, Budget, Jacquie Lambie, Pauline Hanson, Joh Bjelke-Petersen



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Existing comments

Timely article. John Warhurst reminds us of the power of these three Opposition parties to block the most objectionable features of the Budget if they can work together in both Houses of Parliament . That Bandt and Palmer sit in Reps gives both minor parties a feel for mood in both houses. I don't see Greens ever getting cosy with coalition given their huge philosophical gulf on climate policy, the issue central to Greens policy. PUP more unpredictable but I see signs of Palmer becoming a more serious politician, in particular his evolving stance on asylum seekers. Like Wilkie, he does think for himself. I have hopes of the Parliament after the Senate change in July. Interesting times ahead!

Tony Kevin | 06 June 2014  

I like Palmer.

Annoying Orange | 10 June 2014  

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