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Budget '93: Government's strategy committee member discusses the process by which the Bills can be negotiated through the Senate

PETER THOMPSON: The Federal Government's long battle to pass its Budget has entered a new and possibly decisive phase. After breaking up its omnibus Budget Bill into eight parts under legal and political pressure, the new Bills have now been introduced into the House of Representatives and, as expected, they don't face an easy passage through the Senate where the balance of power is controlled by the Greens and Democrats.

The Government has threatened to withhold the promised tax cuts if the Budget Bills aren't passed and has established a strategy committee to help John Dawkins negotiate with the minor parties in the Senate. The Minister Assisting the Treasurer in the Senate, Bob McMullan, is a member of the strategy committee and will be directing the Government's manoeuvres on the floor of the Upper House. Senator McMullan told Michael Brissenden that the Government realises it must now take a different approach.

BOB McMULLAN: There is a process problem here. The Government's hasn't set up a process that responds to the changed circumstance we find ourselves confronting in the Senate.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, John Dawkins, of course knew what the situation was going to be in the Senate. Should this Budget have been more flexible to begin with?

BOB McMULLAN: Well, it's not a question of flexibility of the document, but ....

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Or should your approach have been more flexible?

BOB McMULLAN: I understand your point, Michael. I think John is recognising that ... it's not as if there were hundreds of people saying to him: Why don't you change the process, and he disagreed. He has been the first one to see that his experience is not going to be unique, it's going to be a consistent problem of Ministers with controversial legislation trying to get it through the Senate with an extremely disruptive Opposition and minority parties wishing to make at least changes at the margin. So we have to work out ways to accommodate that in a manner that will get important legislation, which we consider is vitally important for the national interest, passed through the Senate.

What we want to avoid is to get to the situation like that which exists in the United States where all the soft, warm and fuzzy proposals get passed and all the hard decisions get rejected.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Sure. But the Treasurer's tactics haven't been particularly conciliatory over the past few weeks, have they?

BOB McMULLAN: Well, I think on many occasions they have. Nobody would argue, I would have thought, that his long flight back to Perth with Senator Chamarette was other than a conciliatory gesture, and as far as I know she has not indicated that the process was other than friendly and co-operative.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: It hasn't worked though.

BOB McMULLAN: Well now, that's a different question. You can have the best ... this process is not going to be a magic wand. If people refuse to negotiate or if there is such a conflict of views that they can't be reconciled, well this committee is not going to be magic and make that problem evaporate. What it can do, though, is ensure that we have the maximum opportunity to do what we think the country requires, which is pass this Budget and get on, and then when we have other major pieces of legislation like Mabo, get it passed through the Parliament so that we can get on with the necessary business of making this country internationally successful.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: All right. Well, you've repeated John Dawkins' threat that the tax cuts will be deferred unless the Senate passes the Budget Bills. Is deferral now inevitable?

BOB McMULLAN: Oh no, I don't think so. We have said quite clearly all along from Budget night that there is a linkage that we very much think that middle Australia deserves a tax cut. The people on average weekly earnings, the people out there driving the trucks and working in the work shops and working in the offices around Australia who've gone without tax cuts to the same extent that the very low income earners have, deserve a tax cut. But we've got to be able to fund it. It's got to be an economically responsible measure.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Well, the Democrats, of course, still reject the wine tax. Is that the last sticking point?

BOB McMULLAN: Well, I think it's a bit early to say that yet. The committee's been formed and hasn't even met, let alone had any discussions with Democrats or the Greens. So I think you're getting a bit ahead of the game now. We have to make sure that what we've got is a package that is fiscally responsible and which delivers the assistance where we've sought to do so.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Are you that committed to the wine tax, though? Is it no wine tax, no tax cuts?

BOB McMULLAN: Oh, the last thing I want to do is, on the first day I'm a member of the committee that's supposed to help the Government get the Budget through, is build another hurdle that we have to jump over to get it through.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So you can be flexible on that?

BOB McMULLAN: Well, we haven't even started talking yet, so I'm not going to start drawing lines in the sand or building hurdles, whichever metaphor you wish to pursue, before we've had the discussions. But I think the wine tax is a socially responsible measure and should be implemented. But whether it is so important that we will pull the whole house down for it is a matter to be discussed and not finally going to be decided by me.

PETER THOMPSON: Bob McMullan, the Minister Assisting the Treasurer in the Senate.