The government has a new buzzword. In the partyroom on Tuesday Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce urged the troops to make the Coalition’s policies “tactile”.
In less-fancy terminology, what they mean is showing people how the benefits of policies are tangible and real.
Turnbull instanced talking about health savings being about providing funds to make available expensive drugs. In industrial relations, the government’s preferred topic of the week, Turnbull casts the government’s tough industrial relations legislation as “economy-boosting” and “job-creating”.
The government is increasingly confident that the two double-dissolution bills – to resurrect the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and to toughen union governance – will pass the parliament. But it will have to compromise when the bills reach the Senate in order to get the required crossbench support.
It is willing to do so, because that is likely to lead to a better end than the riskier course of a joint sitting.
Mostly this will involve changes to the detail of the bills themselves. But Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm plays a wider game. He wants the ban on the importation of the Adler seven-shot lever-action shotgun lifted as a quid pro quo. He claims he was previously dudded because the ban was just reimposed once a sunset clause he had extracted last year came due.
Two seconds worth of thought would tell you that a trade-off between issues around guns and the industrial relations legislation would be a bad path for Turnbull.
But interviewed on Tuesday morning Turnbull did not flatly shut down the Leyonhjelm demand, as he should have. He didn’t want to get drawn on negotiations or further irritate Leyonhjelm, who already describes himself as “grumpy”.
“We will be dealing respectfully with all of the crossbench senators,” he said on the ABC. Later he told journalists: “I’m not going to speculate about negotiations with senators. I’m certainly not going to negotiate in advance.”
Of Leyonhjelm’s gripe he said: “David Leyonhjelm and I have discussed the matter and I’ll be working hard to ensure that any concerns or disappointment he has is addressed.” Leyonhjelm went to Turnbull to complain during the first week of the new parliament.
Labor, so much more agile than the government on tactics but under pressure over industrial relations, saw an opportunity to switch the heat off itself. It moved a motion in parliament saying Turnbull “has on at least five occasions just this morning refused to rule out trading away John Howard’s gun laws to pass the Abbott government’s industrial relations bills”.
Tony Abbott, also sensing an opportunity, tweeted: “Disturbing to see reports of horse-trading on gun laws. ABCC should be supported on its merits.”
Turnbull, who had gone into the House to train the fire hose on Labor’s motion, was still trying to gain control of the issue in Question Time.
He declared there was “no chance” of the government “weakening, watering down John Howard’s gun laws”.
He said that presently lever-action shotguns were in the most easily acquired category of guns. After a proposal last year to import a significant number of the beefed-up version in question, there had been a need to get federal-state agreement on a reclassification – which hasn’t yet been reached.
The Commonwealth had imposed the import ban, pending an agreement, “to hold the ring and prevent the lever action guns of that capacity to be imported at all”. The ban would continue until the classification was sorted.
Meanwhile the opposition was pursuing the fact that in Abbott’s time Leyonhjelm’s obtaining the sunset clause had secured his opposition to Labor amendments on migration legislation.
By now what Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek called “guns for votes” had taken over the political battleground. The opposition had shifted the conversation from union bad behaviour, on which Labor is vulnerable, to whether Turnbull might play footsie on guns.
It was yet another demonstration of how, in the initial weeks of this parliament, the government is frequently outwitted by its opponents.
Earlier, in the Coalition partyroom, MPs had canvassed the possibility of an electronic system for parliamentary votes, raised by former minister Kevin Andrews. For example, members would still come into the chamber and take seats, but then they would insert personalised cards into machines at the desks. Turnbull is having Leader of the House Christopher Pyne bring forward a submission.
While the government was worrying about saving the moments, Turnbull was throwing away a day.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra