The passing of the historic climate change bill and its emissions reduction objectives this week is a government triumph, but it also carries the imprint of a lone, first-time senator.
Independent senator for the ACT David Pocock proposed amendments to the original bill and his modifications were accepted, aiding its passage.
As he later said in a Twitter post: “Today the Senate passed the Climate Change Bill. Four of my amendments were supported. They strengthen the integrity of this bill by increasing transparency and accountability.”
The Pocock factor will influence the Albanese government’s success rate, as the prime minister rolls out a legislative program fed by two budgets in five months.
Pocock is a national rugby union hero whose glowing fitness contrasts with the signs of decay on some of the political players he’s now rucking with. But he is set to stand out for other reasons.
His visibility will grow as the Senate becomes the chief battleground for the agenda of prime minister Anthony Albanese. He will be among a handful of senators whose decisions will be critical.
The government needs the votes of more than 38 of the 76 senators to have legislation passed intact.
The Coalition parties have 32 senators and Labor and the Greens combined have 38 – 26+12.
If the Coalition were able to get all the remaining six senators on its side, the legislation would be defeated.
Section 23 of the Australian constitution says “when the votes are equal the question shall pass in the negative”. It will be defeated by a tied vote.
Wrangling those Senate numbers will be difficult, and adding to uncertainty is the likelihood the Greens, pumped by gains in the May election, will not always agree with the government.
There is a lot to do. The first budget of treasurer Jim Chalmers will be on 25 October followed by another early next year.
Meantime, there will be controversial matters such as creation of a federal integrity body and reshaping industrial relations mechanisms.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton won’t make things easy for Albanese, as is his preferred operating mode. The opposition will demand more action from the Labor government, ignoring a decade of Coalition inaction.
The field will be open to a peacemaker, or a conflict resolver.
Pocock has no commitment except to his electorate, no party membership or ideological dogma, and on matters that trouble him is prepared to call bullshit – which he did, literally, early Thursday and was required to withdraw the “unparliamentary” language.
That combination is a danger for both the government and the opposition. It means the major parties will not just be monitored by the teal line on the House of Representatives crossbench. They will face scrutiny from an intelligent and measured observer on the Senate benches.
Pocock is new to parliament but has an experienced source of advice. His chief of staff is Fiona Scott, Liberal member for Lindsay from 2013 to 2016, who knows the road to evaluating legislation, and how to avoid paths she regrets being taken down when an MP.
It would be unwise for leaders of major parties to dismiss Pocock as just another blow-in, an accident of the Senate voting system.
Unshackled to party commands, he might reject or leverage amendments to government legislation, moves the opposition might be delighted to cultivate. But of course he could also back the government and give Albanese a touch more security in a divided and obstreperous upper chamber.
It might seem a huge task but Pocock already has defied the political norm.
Last election he busted the cosy ballot outcomes of the previous 47 years which saw Labor take one of the ACT’s two Senate spots, and Liberals the other.
He did it by ousting Zed Seselja who had been the Liberal senator for nine years. The Labor senator is finance minister Katy Gallagher.
Pocock’s performance might be endorsed by the two Jacqui Lambie Network senators, less possibly by the two One Nation senators, and probably very little by the single United Australia party senator.
He is likely to find common cause with the independents in the lower house: Kyle Tink, Zoe Daniel, Monique Ryan, Kate Chaney, Allegra Spender, Sophie Scamp, Zali Steggall and Helen Haines.
Pocock is no teal, but he and the women agree on some important issues.
Primarily, his influence will be decided by the mathematics of the upper house, not the House of Representatives.
He has the commitment of someone who, tired of hearing himself complain about politics, decided to do something about it. He is not used to being on the sidelines, and has considerable freedom of movement with his priority being to look after the ACT, which he has been doing by speaking out on federal issues affecting the territory, such as moves to allow a local decision on assisted dying laws.
Pocock’s priorities are listed on his website. Under a heading Staying Accountable, he reports he has sent 951 constituent emails, made seven parliamentary speeches, and held 15 ministerial meetings.
Guardian Australia understands those ministerial meetings have not included a chat with Anthony Albanese. However, that is likely to change.
Pocock is more than just the bloke who said “bullshit” in parliament.