Greens in the new Parliament

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It’s a challenge to govern when the numbers in Parliament are equal and a cluster of independents determine whether a bill is passed or not.  But we’ve had a bit of experience with this at State level in Australia.  I watched as Coalition Premiers Nick Greiner and John Fahey juggled a relationship with independents after NSW Labor won the Entrance by-election in 1992 following a narrow Coalition win  in the NSW State Election of 1991.

Yet I learnt this: independents are very reluctant to bring a government down.  It’s a big decision.  They are open to criticism if it’s the wrong call.  They could pay a price in their own electorates.  They understand the community wants stable government and there will be a lot of anger in the air if they vote for a handover on the floor of the Parliament or bring on an early election.

It took a corruption finding against Nick Greiner by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to force the issue in New South Wales – a finding later overturned in the NSW Supreme Court.

In the absence of such exceptional circumstances there is a likelihood that the Gillard Government will survive with cross-bench support for its three year term.  Certainly business would be wise to plan for this as a strong probability.

This has been a close call for the Greens.  If Abbott had got over the line there would have been no action on carbon pricing for three years.  Yet there would have been a carbon price operating in Australia if the Greens had supported Kevin Rudd’s  Emissions Trading Scheme back in December last year.  They held it up in the Senate for a crucial period in which climate change denial took hold of the Coalition and then the Greens voted with the Coalition to defeat it.

The Greens supporting a Labor Government will not mean anything if at the end of three years Australia is not pricing carbon.

I believe Ross Garnaut can be recruited at a moment’s notice by Prime Minister Gillard to design an interim carbon price that would satisfy the Greens and pass the Greens-ALP dominated Senate; the only question is would it pass the House of Representatives?  Assuming Windsor and Oakeshott support it and Turnbull backs it the answer is, yes – even if Katter were to vote no.

The media and the Canberra press gallery have decided that the Greens are the one political party whose pre-selections and conferences and factions can never be analysed.  All the other parties, quite legitimately, are fair game.

The media might start to report and analyse the Greens – just for a change.  The key story here will be how quickly the party will mature from a party of protest into a party of negotiation, holding its base but compromising as necessary to get legislation through.  Making concessions but carrying its own forums – conferences or councils or collectives, whatever they are.  We don’t know because the media and the Canberra press gallery have decided that this is the one political party whose pre-selections and conferences and factions can never be analysed.  All the other parties, quite legitimately, are fair game.

Pricing carbon is one of the big issues for this new and more interesting Parliament.  The other is a tax on mining profits.  I’m presuming that Labor will not want to go to the left of what it has negotiated with the big miners.  Here, then, is the first compromise required of the Greens: to forgo all their virtuous redistributist talk about a mining tax and to settle for a more modest version.  The price for this?  I guess lots of cycling tracks.

The Greens’ legislators will bear in mind the key performance indicator I pointed to above, namely, whether Australia emerges with a price on carbon, either a tax or an interim price set for the opening phase of an emissions trading scheme.

Meanwhile the one question for commentators on NSW state politics is what will Barry O’Farrell do, given that all the opinion polls make him the next Premier by a big margin.

He’s on the record with a commitment to privatise the desalination plant and to franchise out the management of Sydney Ferries.  It’s hard to see the sort of bold privatisations that many of his supporters might expect.  The present Labor government should finish privatising the electricity retailers and the output of the generators by December (output, not the generators themselves – it’s called the “G-trader” model).  The government has privatised State Lotteries and is privatising the State-owned waste authority.  In my time, the government privatised the TAB, Freight Corp and the state-owned coal mines.  Big privatisations, and successful ones.

In a recent interview Barry O’Farrell said he would “borrow against the State’s Triple A rating”.  Which is, borrow.

Interesting to have a Premier from a conservative side say his chief policy commitment is to lift state debt when his federal colleagues have come close to winning a federal election running against Labor’s debt.

It’s a fiscal strategy that deserves analysis.

In this phase there’s not much else in NSW politics to analyse.