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Greens power supply

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 22 July 2010

Would the Greens ever block supply? Given the party is likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate after July 1 next year it is a fair question to ask, although it is one the media has ignored to date.

Greens Leader Bob Brown in an email from his office, told this writer on Tuesday that:

The Greens would never block crucial bills or supply to the Government except in case of gross political corruption or misconduct. It is not possible to block the federal Budget in entirety. The Greens will always scrutinise different elements of budget legislation to get the best outcome for the community and the most effective use of taxpayer dollars.


In other words, a repeat of 1975, when the Coalition parties blocked the Whitlam government's supply Bills which led to Governor-General John Kerr sacking the Prime Minister, could happen again.

This is because Brown's line of reasoning is very similar to that of Malcolm Fraser who was Whitlam's opposite number in 1975. On being elected as Leader of the Liberal Party in early 1975 Fraser said that while he generally believed "if a government is elected to power in the lower House and has the numbers and can maintain the numbers in the lower House, it is entitled to expect that it will govern for the three-year term unless quite extraordinary events intervene". But, said Fraser, if he and his colleagues decided that "the government is so reprehensible that an Opposition must use whatever power is available to it" then the power of the Senate to block supply would be utilised.

The Coalition's attitude to the blocking of supply bills has not shifted since 1975. Howard government Finance Minister Nick Minchin told the ABC's 7.30 Report on November 10, 2005 that "it is important that the Senate does retain, at the end of the day, a power to block supply. Governments must have the authority of both houses of parliament, in this country, to spend money and I think that is right."

On the other hand the ALP believes, in the words of its former Senate Leader John Faulkner in 2003, that the "removal of the power of the Senate to block, defer or reject supply is integral to any reform of Senate powers".

So on the issue of supply the Greens and the Coalition parties are in rare agreement. And if they did combine to block supply they could topple a Labor government.

One needs to be careful not to overstate the case of a Greens and Coalition driven constitutional crisis. Senator Brown says that only in cases of "gross political corruption or misconduct" would his party close the government down, which is what happens when you can't pay public servants and pensions. And he would no doubt understand that blocking supply is an extreme measure which caused Australia great social and political damage in 1975, and that it is not a power possessed by comparable upper houses in the UK and Canada.


The track record of Brown on spoiling tactics needs also to be assessed. As leader of the Tasmanian Greens he ensured passage of a succession of tough budgets from Labor Premier Michael Field between 1989 and 1992. Brown did however walk out of the historic Labor-Green Accord Government and it is fair to say he remains more at the fundamentalist end of his party than some of his younger colleagues like Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, who is decidedly pragmatic.

There is also the question of what Brown means by the phrase "gross political corruption or misconduct". What is "political corruption" and when does it become "gross"? Who determines whether something is "misconduct"?

These are all legitimate questions to ask of the man and the party that wants to control one of the most powerful upper houses in the world.

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First published in ABC's The Drum on July 21, 2010.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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