Image for Casting the first stone of breaking convention might come to haunt Abbott

Wiki Commons pic of Tony Abbott

Last week the ALP made a tactical error in Federal Parliament by voting through the debt levy (three-year progressive budget repair levy) in the House of Representatives, given that the Opposition Leader had attacked the proposed debt levy imposed on high income earners as a “deceit tax” in Brisbane in late April.

By that action, is the ALP an accomplice to the Abbott government’s first budget “of broken promises built on lies”?  Is it no wonder that voters are cynical and disillusioned of the way the major parties operate?

Will the Australian Greens emulate the ALP by cherry-picking the federal budget by passing, for example, the fuel excise indexation legislation?

If so, should we be cynical of the Greens as well?

While there are many elements in the Abbott budget that are reasonable, none of these reflect the pre-election commitments made by Tony Abbott before the elections on 13 September 2013.

Andrew Wilkie’s call ( An ideological crusade against the poorest and most disadvantaged ... ) for other political parties and independents to join him in voting against the Appropriation Bills (Supply) is an interesting development.

The Independent Member for Denison is correct in stating “because to wave the Appropriation Bills through the Parliament would be to effectively support the Budget. Many of the Budget measures are contained in the Appropriation Bills, and not separate enabling legislation, including the cuts to the ABC and SBS, CSIRO and the Coalition’s plan to index pensions to CPI.”

Wilkie’s call to arms is mainly directed at like-minded colleagues in the Senate, where the sting to reject the Abbott budget is the greatest.

I agree with Wilkie’s first statement made to the Deputy Speaker today “every government has the right to try and implement the platform they took to an election. It also has every right to try and deal with the countless other issues that come along in a way that is consistent with their broader ideology.” However, the case he makes is weakened by his second statement, and that attacking Abbott on the principle of breaking every pre-election promise and then delivering the precise opposite through the federal budget would have given the gist of his message more potency.

In the Senate, the unwritten convention is that no political parties vote against Appropriation Bill #1 (ordinary annual services of the government).

But it is the Prime Minister Tony Abbott who has broken tradition and convention by delivering such a radical budget that is contrary to what the voters expected.

So on that basis, with the bond of trust broken between the electorate and the incoming government, there are grounds to break convention and it is permissible to vote down the Appropriation Bills (Supply).

This action is more powerful than providing countless triggers for a double dissolution (eg. rejecting the mining tax, the carbon tax, and twice rejecting the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013). Going down the double dissolution route simply gives more oxygen to Abbott, and a DD election could not occur until early 2015 at the earliest.

Add to the mix the probable reluctance of newly-elected Senators Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm (and maybe Ricky Muir) to countenance a double dissolution, it means the legislation triggers will have to be debated each on their merits thereby extending out the timeframe. 

Of more relevance, blocking supply from 1 July would force the Governor-General to intervene sooner, as in 1975, by appointing an interim Prime Minister who could muster parliamentary support for passage of the Supply Bills, otherwise government functions would come to a grinding halt.

Of course, another, swifter option would be for the Liberal Coalition parliamentary members to depose and replace Tony Abbott while he is travelling abroad; leaving the hard sell of a compromised budget to others. Where is Abbott’s leadership here when it is most needed by the conservatives?

There would still be the issue of ditching the ‘lame duck’ budget, and passing an interim budget that continues to fund the core functions of the government. 

This happened in the USA last year, where the US federal government entered a shutdown in the first half of October 2013. As a result of Congress failing to enact legislation appropriating funds for the following fiscal year, some 800,000 federal employees were furloughed and a further 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates for their services. Most routine operations were curtailed.  An interim appropriations bill was passed on 17 October allowing for the resumption of regular government operations.

A similar scenario could happen here in Australia.

We live in interesting times.

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Phil na Champassak owns The Madsen Boutique Hotel in Penguin and is a founding board member of the Cradle Coast Innovation Inc fostering enterprise facilitation. He is also a board member of the Cradle Coast Tourism Executive, the regional tourism organisation for NW Tasmania. Formerly a diplomat and DFAT policy analyst, Phil has worked on trade, aid, public diplomacy, consular, international security, and bilateral relations with PNG, the US, and NZ, and was most recently DFAT State Director for Tasmania. Prior to that Phil worked for the UN Development Programme in New York, West Africa and PNG. Phil also served as election monitor to the first elections in Cambodia (1992) and South Africa (1994) and was a peace monitor in Bougainville (2002). He has contributed to publications on human rights, election monitoring, and UN issues. Awarded in 2003 a Australian Service Medal. Phil was a guest of ABC Radio Richard Fidler’s ‘Conversations’ in November 2013.

• Phil Na Champassak, Dear learned reader: Do not take the government or opposition’s figures on the Federal Budget as gospel, because it is more often than not that you are being sold smoke and mirrors. Educate yourself by trying the interactive Guardian Budget 2014: how would you cut Australia’s deficit? - interactive HERE Drag and drop the boxes from out to in to include a budget measure. Hit the submit button when you’re done to send us your choices. The deficit is an estimated cumulative deficit figure over the four-year forward estimates period, as are the savings. Each item shows an estimate of how much it would save in total over four years.