We have now seen the first two sitting weeks of the new Senate. Most attention was given to the rejection of the government’s legislation increasing the tax on luxury cars, with Family First’s Steve Fielding joining with the Coalition to knock off the Bill at the Second Reading stage, before any attempts could be made to move amendments to the legislation.
The votes taken on a range of other matters show a wider pattern already emerging. On four occasions, Fielding voted with the Coalition, while the Greens and Nick Xenophon voted on the other side with Labor, leaving the numbers deadlocked. On another occasion, the Fielding/Liberal grouping was joined by Xenophon – knocking out a Schedule of a tax Bill which would have tightened the definition of ‘family’ in family trusts to reduce the scope for these trusts to use tax losses to lower income tax.
A tied vote means the question being voted on is lost. This means government legislation fails to pass, but it also means amendments or motions moved by the Coalition or Fielding also lose. This happened twice, with a Coalition amendment to government legislation repealing Howard era workplace relations and governance protocols on the higher education sector failing on a tied vote, as did an attempt by Fielding to refer a Bill on the Great Barrier Reef to a long Senate Committee inquiry (his latest effort to position himself as a champion of the fishing lobby). The Bill was eventually referred, but only for two weeks rather than the two and a half months Fielding tried for.
Apart from losing the Schedule on family trusts from a Tax Bill and also losing the Luxury Car Tax measure, the government also lost another Bill to a Fielding/Liberal tied vote – which sought to enable wider cost recovery from pharmaceutical companies. This leaves the Labor government already with four packages of legislation knocked back in their entirety by the Senate, including two from the first half of the year. Judging by the large number of dissenting comments from Coalition Senators in a wide range of Senate Economics Committee reports examining other legislation yet to be voted on, it looks like this reject pile is going to get a lot larger yet.
If the government does want to think about the option of a double dissolution election sometime next year, they look likely to have a historically large pile of legislation to justify it. Despite the justified reputation of the Whitlam era Senate as a hostile one, when Gough Whitlam went to a double dissolution election in 1974, seventeen months after he was first elected to office, he’d only built up five valid trigger Bills. Kevin Rudd looks well on track to easily better that by this time next year.