This week in politics was all about the major parties trying to leave a lasting impression with voters before the long summer break.
But it’s likely no-one would have predicted the Greens would be the ones to outsmart not only the Government and Opposition but also the try-hards on the Senate crossbench by getting the highest media profile.
The Labor Opposition did its best this week to make the Government look chaotic, which wasn’t difficult given the tangle it got itself into over the backpacker tax.
Justice Party senator Derryn Hinch didn’t help, unabashedly changing his mind on the income tax rate for foreign workers on holiday visas three times in less than a week.
First he voted for the Government’s original compromise of 19 per cent (down from 32.5 per cent), which was defeated in the Senate when Jacqui Lambie teamed with Labor to cut the rate to 10.5 per cent.
Then Senator Hinch said he would back the Government’s new compromise tax rate of 15 per cent, only to welch on that undertaking and propose a 13 per cent tax instead.
One media outlet reported the Nationals suspect an adviser in Senator Hinch’s office, who once worked for the Palmer United Party and before that Tony Windsor, was behind the wrecking move.
Labor couldn’t believe its luck, deserting Lambie, jumping onto the Hinch bandwagon and goading the Prime Minister to give in to its “sensible solution” in the same way he “gave in” to the right-wingers in his party.
To this writer, Labor’s faux reassurance was a lot like Lucy assuring Charlie Brown that she really would let Charlie Brown kick the football this time.
Demonstrating that at least he’s smarter than a Peanuts character, Malcolm Turnbull declined the offer, safe in the knowledge that if he had taken it up Labor would have rhetorically snatched the ball away, lambasting him for yet another “embarrassing backdown”.
Luckily for the Prime Minister, the Greens saw a chance on Thursday and moved swiftly to take it.
The minor party had already won brownie points with its “base constituency” this week by showing support for protesters who interrupted question time on Wednesday and scaled the front of Parliament House on Thursday.
The activists aimed to draw attention to the major parties’ joint responsibility for the ongoing suffering of asylum seekers and refugees being held offshore.
While declining responsibility for any part in orchestrating the incidents, the Greens nonetheless welcomed the peaceful protest with open arms – literally in the case of Greens leader Richard Di Natale who was happy to hug and thank the protestors in front of the media throng.
The resulting news stories with shots of Senator Di Natale embracing the protesters were an important brand reinforcement activity for the leader of the Greens, given he’s the first person in the role not to have a track record in protesting and being arrested for doing so.
This would have played well with the party’s primary support base, made up mostly of inner-city progressives.
By helping to resolve the backpacker tax imbroglio, the Greens made their secondary support base grateful – the farmers in rural and regional Australia who already like the minor party and are starting to vote Green because of its opposition to coal seam gas operations on farmland.
The Greens did so by finding the sweet spot at which good policy met good politics, which was the Government’s preferred 15 per cent tax rate for foreign workers (the same being paid by Pacific Islanders under a foreign aid program), and a $100 million cash injection for Landcare (which is popular with farmers).
The deal with the Greens cost the Government more in dollar terms, but it prevented Labor from ending the week with a big win against its main opponent.
Considered from that perspective, it would have been worth every dollar to Malcolm Turnbull.
But there is no denying that the Greens were the real winners this week. In two days the minor party reinforced its position with inner-city progressives on asylum seekers, while strengthening its position with the rural and regional voters that are key to the party growing its vote and becoming more “mainstream”.
That’s no mean feat, and one that is likely be most remembered when Parliament resumes in February next year.