The tale of the notepad, the prime minister and a minority parliament

As the 45th Parliament of Australia sits down to business, the early signs are that it will be a bruising two and a half years if we make it that long.  A sort-of majority in the lower house and an emboldened cross bench in the Senate may be nothing compared to the factional rifts within the government ranks, if yesterday's moves are a presage for things to come. 

While business favours political stability, advocacy associations can exploit the turmoil to secure concessions and policy outcomes that a majority government can easily dismiss. In Canada, where minority governments are more commonplace, industry associations and other interest groups know how to play the minority parties to their advantage

The minority parliament

And so, a tale from the 43rd Parliament, and how the tourism industry inflicted damage on a minority government thanks to a notebook.

In the 2012-13 federal budget included an 18% increase to Australia's airport departure tax (euphemistically called the passenger movement charge, or PMC), contrary to assurances given the week previously. Worse still, it was set to rise automatically every year in line with inflation.

If the PMC was about the only issue that united the disparate elements of the tourism industry, it was the broken promise that galvanised them into action.

In a textbook public affairs campaign, we had the essential elements of an effective advocacy campaign ready to go: we had research, we had broad support, we had international cases studies and we had been consistent in our message beforehand.

All of this amounted to a whole heap of nothing during a majority parliament.

But the Three Amigos, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter changed that.

We appealed to their electorate obligations and talked about regional tourism and the inequity between major capital city airports (whose customs checks were paid for from the PMC) and regional airports (who would face an additional levy should they attract international flights). Mr Oakeshott, it transpired, wanted trans-Tasman flights into Port Macquarie. The other two wanted more money diverted to regional tourism initiatives like signposting. 

The prime minister...

Armed with a plan, we had a meeting booked with the advisor to the prime minister, Julia Gillard, on why the PMC bill needed to be aborted.  Whilst tourism appealed to the internationalist and populist sentiments of predecessor Kevin Rudd, we felt that Ms Gillard was convinced by the logic that since foreign visitors can't vote, taxing them doesn't hurt.   

...and the notepad

But we needed a way to convince the government that we had the numbers. The opposition was riled up and said they'd oppose if we advertised in their preferred newspapers. Easily done: an ad was whipped up in minutes and we went armed into the prime minister's office with a copy on our phones.

The last ingredient was a dash of deviousness. The CEO at the time called it "a bit of mongrel".

We may have added more certainty to the positions of the cross-benchers in the notes of the meetings. We may have added details about the measures they would seek as a compromise. We may have then deliberately left my notepad in the prime minster's office. 

The gamble paid off. Within an hour Parliament House security called me to inform me that my notebook had been handed in. We had no way of knowing whether the prime minister's advisors read it. 

But given that the government amended the bill, set aside money for regional tourism and fast tracked reform to international airport rules, we can only assume so. 

Oh, and we secured a reversal on the automatic indexation and a commitment from the Coalition that they wouldn't touch the PMC

Just shows what planning, building an alliance and bit of mongrel can do for you in a minority parliament. Not that this is a minority parliament, of course. 

And I got my notebook back. It was a Moleskine one, so that was nice. 


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