March 27, 2013

Horse 1454 - The $1 Variation Budget Option

Tony Abbott has said that when parliament resumes for the handing down of the budget in May, he intends to ask for another motion of no confidence. I suppose that this would have the effect of triggering off an early election if it is successful but there is another avenue open to him in the rather likely event that it is not; another sneakier avenue; one so dastardly that it has only succeeded once previous in Australian politics.
That is, the way of the $1 variation.

In 1941 the budget was handed down and to displace Fadden's UAP-Country Coalition Government, John Curtin's Labor Party secured government by copying verbatim the entire of the 1940/41 budgetary legislation and making a change of a mere £1 in the spending figures.
Although this is almost trivial, just £1 of variation meant that the legislation was materially different and that the members were voting on a different budgetary bill. The fact that it was passed meant that supply was stolen on the floor of chamber and with it, the reins of control. Shuffle forwards more than 70 years to 2013 and given that the current parliament sits on even more of a knife-edge, it looks like a semi sensible strategy.

The members of parliament would be asked to vote on basically the same piece of legislation. As far as neutral members or even members of the government are concerned, to turn down legislation that is almost identical save for $1 might mean something even more drawn out and tedious. If the budget isn't passed at all, then there is a loss of supply and that would trigger a dissolution of parliament, unless of course it was stalled in the Senate in which case it'd be 1975 all over again. If a variation budget is passed, then the party which got this through, would have the option of immediately issuing writs to dissolve parliament, safe in the knowledge that they'd then have 11 months before they would be required to produce a new one, provided that they won government in the general election.

Of course it probably goes without saying that under normal circumstances, that such a plan would be impossible for an opposition to explore. Government in a Westminster Parliament is formed from a majority of members on the floor but when government is only formed with the support of independents and minors, then the opportunity for those members to switch sides is very real.
Unlike a censure motion, to pass a budgetary bill runs with the same mechanics as any other bill and instead of failing 73-71 but still being short of the 76 required for a censure motion, 73-71 would have been sufficient to pass a budgetary bill. It would then need to pass the Senate as per any other bill but assuming that the negotiations would be conducted in an entirely different climate, then it might be far easier.

I personally think that an Abbott Coalition Government would be worse for the country than a Gillard Labor Government but I am not the majority of voters in 150 electorates. If Abbott can get a variation budget to pass through the parliament, he'd then have the option of making the people of Australia make a choice about who governs. I'm wondering though what happens if through some bizarre freak of nature, they make the same choice as 2010... then what?

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