In their continual practice of seeing the present through the past, media commentators are missing the different way the Senate is being used by the Rudd government.

For The Age’s Michelle Grattan, the government’s minority in the Senate is a political problem because it is a barrier to the government implementing its program.

What exactly was that program again? Even the government admits that FuelWatch is no more than a little help at the margins. The difficulties the government has had with FuelWatch stemmed mostly from admitting its limits before establishing the political grounds to do so, and this has been more of a problem for the press than an electorate that has a better grasp of the real situation. The wise tactic for the Liberals would have been to expose it as nothing more than the consumerist gesture it is and leave it at that.

Unfortunately they have gone too far and by opposing it, have made it to be a bigger deal than it is. This not only undermines the main charge against the government that it doesn’t have an agenda of substance, but gives Rudd an opportunity to turn the Liberals’ obstruction against them. There may be arguments doing the rounds as to why FuelWatch will make prices higher. However, it is not immediately obvious to most people how letting them know the price of petrol will be bad for them. The apparent common sense behind PetrolWatch makes it fairly easy for the government to allege ulterior motives for opposing it. The Senate’s opposition has in effect given Rudd an opportunity to make an anti-politics charge against the Liberals as though he was in opposition again.

It is the fact that this is more about making a political attack rather than implementing a program that determines the government’s tactics in the Senate. If it was serious about bringing this in then it would be looking to the Independents and the Greens to pass it. Instead, as Rudd has said repeatedly, it is the Liberals the government is targeting as the obstruction while it by-passes the minor parties.

The problems that Rudd can create for the Liberals on this are fairly obvious. The charge that they are defending the oil companies could stick even if it is probably not that credible as the Liberals’ hard-line position is being more driven by internal needs than anything else.

However, the problems they can create for the Independents may be more subtle but are there as well. Xenophon and Fielding are less in the Senate because of anything they particularly stand for than as a reaction to the old two-party system (supporters of both, for example, might be surprised that they had such a strong commitment to support small petrol retailers, which they used to justify their opposition to FuelWatch). It is the lack of real basis for their election that requires them to be such publicity hungry performing artists.

Yet while the Independents were elected as a reaction against the two-party system, their influence relies on it and this is what, for now, makes their two votes count more than two votes from two coalition senators. If Rudd succeeds in breaking the old partisan system down, these two media tarts may find there is less interest in what they have to say, which by the look of it, is not very much.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 15 August 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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