Little is known about Senator-elect Ricky Muir, of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, beyond his self-evident enthusiasm for motor vehicles.
Since last year’s election, Muir has made one public appearance, when he announced he would form a voting alliance with the senators-elect from the Palmer United Party. There are three PUP senators – the Brick with Eyes, aka Queenslander Glenn Lazarus; Tasmanian single mother and Hanson-esque battler Jacqui Lambie; and Dio Wang, a polite Chinese migrant who will quit as managing director of the majority Clive-Palmer-owned Australasian Resources to take up his Senate gig.
This means that come July 1 when the new Senate is formed, Tony Abbott’s government will have to deal with a four-person Palmer power bloc on any of its legislation not supported by Labor and Greens senators.
Abbott is in an eccentric position – despite his resounding lower house election victory, this first-time prime minister will have to deal with the largest Senate crossbench in Australian history. There are 18 cats to herd, and he needs six on his side to achieve anything. Abbott, the great pusher-through and pugilist, will need to negotiate.
Presuming the 10 Greens senators vote (mostly) against the Coalition, the PUP bloc will be integral, but only if they stay as a bloc. The government will do everything to ensure they don’t, and Clive Palmer will do everything he can to make sure they do. The result will be a magnificent battle of wills.
The first clash between the quixotic Clive and our hard-headed Prime Minister came in 2012, when Palmer was still a member of the Queensland Liberal National Party. The two had a heated argument in a Brisbane restaurant over an issue that now seems rather poignant – lobbyist influence. Palmer wanted lobbyists banned from holding executive positions in the party. Then opposition leader Abbott disagreed. Anglo-Saxon language was deployed by both men, and a few months afterwards, Palmer quit (possibly just as he was about to be expelled from) the Liberals to form his own party.
(Abbott, of course, has recently come around to Palmer’s point of view on lobbyists, announcing a crackdown on party officials who lobby government).
The two men clashed again this week. First, Palmer demanded the government scrap its plans to cut a welfare payment to the children of war veterans, or else he would direct his PUP power bloc not to support the repeal of the mining tax.
A second and more intractable conflict came when Palmer announced he would not support the Coalition’s “direct action” carbon emissions reduction scheme because he believes it is a waste of money.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt says direct action has its legislative basis in the budget (which he believes the PUP bloc would never dare block), but this is far from settled.
How the gods would smile if Abbott were forced to stake his leadership over a carbon emissions reduction scheme. If Palmer digs his heels in, how hard will the Prime Minister fight for it?
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s most controversial policy, the paid parental leave scheme that compensates working women on salaries of up to $150,000 a year, will most likely pass the Senate with the Greens’ help.
None of the other crossbenchers support it but the Greens have indicated their willingness to wave the scheme through as long as the cap is reduced to salaries of $100,000.
Such is the serendipity of the Senate – Abbott, great nemesis of the left, could team up with the hemp-wearing hippies to deliver a scheme that horrifies both economic dries and labour types alike.
The government’s best hope in dealing with an unruly Senate will be to split the Palmer power bloc, the motley crew of interests, eccentricities and political inexperience that will roll into a curious Canberra on July 1.
Muir will surely be the first target – he is completely inexperienced, lacks friends in Canberra and seems out of his depth. He has been more or less mute since the election, save for a brief television doorstop near his home in country Victoria, in which he came across as sweetly shy.
The main impression the 30-something Victorian has left on the public is his reputation as a roo-poo thrower, thanks to a home video-gone-public that showed him engaged in some backyard horseplay with his brother. (I tried and failed to contact Muir at work and home for this column. Keith Littler, media liaison for the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, did not return calls.)
Such is the intrigue around this missing Senate puzzle piece that a month ago Muir was photographed, paparazzi-style, by a Victorian tabloid newspaper, as he reported for duty at the sawmill where he works, in the Gippsland town of Heyfield.
It was a precise portrait of a working class bloke – high-vis vest and steel-capped boots, his only accessories a wedding band and a pair of sports sunnies resting atop his short-back-and-sides. Littler told the newspaper: “At the moment he’s not a senator, he’s just an ordinary Australian.”
Muir might be the protagonist of a Gippslandian version of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But nobody knows how the story will end. Little is known about AMEP’s policy stances on most parts of the government’s legislative program, from direct action and paid parental leave, to its proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The one area where the non-Greens crossbench senators are open to supporting the government is on the issue of lowering penalty rates. All except Democratic Labour Party senator John Madigan, who opposes lowering them, and Muir, whose position is unknown.
What an irony, then, that this is the one policy area Abbott has said he will not touch in his first term.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.