BATTLE LINES have been drawn in the Senate. The Rudd government is accusing the Liberals of holding their budget to ransom by blowing a funding hole in it.

The Liberals are blocking legislation including the tax increases on alcopops, the raising of the Medicare surcharge, a $55 million increase on luxury car tax and a new tax on Woodside’s condensate (light oil) production in the North West shelf. The future of FuelWatch is also doubtful.

FuelWatch is a joke and the tax on alcopops a revenue grab dressed up as a concern for under-age binge drinking. But the Liberals are motivated by helping the health insurance companies and their business buddies buying luxury cars.

To get legislation passed, Labor requires the votes of the five Greens senators, South Australian independent Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding, the Victorian Family First Senator.

Most of the time, we can expect the Greens to vote with Labor, so the balance of power will effectively rest with Xenophon and Family First—not an attractive prospect. Set up as a mechanism to ensure states’ rights in the federation, the Senate is notoriously un-representative. Paul Keating famously, but accurately, referred to it as “unrepresentative swill.”  The rise of the Greens however has brought renewed hopes in the possibility of the Senate being a progressive check on the government of the day.

But the fact that the Labor government now has to deal with Xenophon and Fielding drastically limits its progressive potential. In 2005, when Howard did not have a Senate majority, Fielding voted with him to introduce Voluntary Student Unionism and to overturn the ACT’s civil recognition of same sex marriages.

The lack of a majority will allow Rudd to blame the Senate for his inability or unwillingness to bring real change. You can already hear Rudd and Swan blaming rising fuel prices on the Liberals for opposing FuelWatch!

Rudd is unlikely to call a double dissolution election in search of a Senate majority. The last time that happened was 1974 when the Whitlam government did so in an attempt to overcome Liberal obstruction in the Senate. Rudd is more likely to be content to make concessions to those to his right.

But the Senate reveals just how limited Australia’s supposedly democratic system really is. The vast majority of people who voted Labor want an end to all of Howard’s WorkChoices. The majority of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory voted to end the Liberals’ intervention. People expected Labor to introduce laws to allow same sex marriage.

Rudd has already fallen short of such expectations. The lack of a Labor/Greens senate majority means that we might well get even less. It won’t be Parliament that will deliver on the hopes of those who voted Labor. It will be the movement on the streets—to keep charged union official Noel Washington out of jail, and in the fight in the communities and cities against the racist NT Intervention—where we can most surely hold Rudd to his promises.

By Ian Rintoul

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