If there’s a saying that sums up the unanticipated consequences of political chicanery, it’s “be careful what you wish for”.
The Prime Minister was undoubtedly reminded of the aphorism this week, when his too-smart-by-half plan to get the Senate to give him a fresh double dissolution trigger was cleverly hijacked by the Labor opposition.
The Turnbull Government doesn’t have the numbers in the Senate, so when Labor, the Greens and six of the eight crossbenchers are of a mind to defy the PM’s wishes, there’s very little Mr Turnbull can do about it.
Accordingly, the Senate decided at the end of last month’s marathon parliamentary session that approved the new Senate voting rules, that it would next meet on the scheduled budget day, May 10, instead of giving the Government the flexibility to recall it earlier.
The PM had anticipated this move apparently, announcing a few days later that the Governor-General had agreed to the Government’s request to direct both the House of Representatives and the Senate to meet on April 18.
The unexpected recall of the parliament would give the Senate up to three weeks to debate the proposed law to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission, before the Treasurer brought down the budget on May 3, a week earlier than scheduled.
And if the Senate rejected the bill, as it had done in the past, the PM would have his trigger as well as a week to pass the supply bills before calling the double dissolution election by May 11 for July 2.
Mr Turnbull may have thought he’d outwitted the Opposition, but he might not have expected his wish to be granted so swiftly by the Senate.
In stark contrast to the filibuster tactics used by Labor during the debate on the Senate reforms, the Opposition debated and rejected the bill within the day.
This was because Labor had devised other plans for making the most of the parliamentary session.
With the support of the Greens and some of the Senate crossbenchers, the Opposition established two Senate inquiries that will undoubtedly be inconvenient if not downright uncomfortable for the Turnbull Government.
The first inquiry will scrutinise the decisions made by state and territory leaders along with the Prime Minister at the COAG meeting earlier this month, particularly those on funding for health and education, as well as taxation.
The inquiry’s public hearings next week will provide Labor with a handy platform from which to draw attention to the $80 billion in funding for hospitals and schools that the Turnbull Government has taken “off the table”.
They’ll also be able to revisit the PM’s hypothetical proposal to shift funding for public schools to the states, and remind increasingly disillusioned voters about the 48-hour wonder that was the PM’s income tax plan for the states.
The second inquiry will dig into the anonymous-sounding entities that raise funds for political parties, and feature an enforced appearance by Cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos who will be grilled by the senate committee members.
Labor hopes this inquiry will expose whether Senator Sinodinos knew that one such body, the Free Enterprise Foundation, had laundered prohibited donations for the NSW Liberals when he was the party’s state finance director and treasurer in 2011.
And even if he didn’t know, they’ll claim he should have. The inquiry will also hold its public hearings next week.
Combined with the backflip that allowed the Opposition to join populist calls for a royal commission into the banking sector, next week’s inquiries will provide Labor with compelling election campaign material.
Not only will they be able to portray the PM as a dodgy corporate shill who’s prepared to abandon public schools, but a leader whose party is full of shadowy shysters.
In essence, by exploiting this week’s enforced parliamentary sitting, Labor deftly turned the tables on the Prime Minister, ensuring that the second week of the faux election campaign will feature wall-to-wall bad publicity for the PM and his government.