Labor will introduce a bill to crack down on payday lending on Monday, using a reform first promised by Malcolm Turnbull to test Scott Morrison’s control of the lower house.
Labor and the Nationals are also pushing for measures to improve small businesses’ access to justice, an alliance of interests likely to force the Morrison government to back down on its opposition to a bill that passed the Senate on Thursday or risk losing a second substantive lower house vote in a week.
Parliament returns on Monday for the last sitting week before the budget in April, with Senate estimates set to scrutinise $420m of Paladin offshore detention security contracts and opposition parties keen to test the minority government in the lower house.
After Labor and the crossbench combined to pass a bill for medical evacuations from offshore detention last week, the Morrison government has moved to avoid similar embarrassment by promising to support a motion calling for a royal commission into disability care.
Tony Burke, the manager of opposition business, said that at least three issues will return to the lower house on Monday: the disability royal commission, small business measures, and stronger penalties for corporate misconduct.
“Last Thursday, the government was opposed to all three,” he said. “Four days later, the government is preparing to backflip on all three.
“These backflips are from a prime minister who will say and do anything to stay in office, even if that means clinging to power by his fingernails.”
Also on the notice paper is a private members bill to be introduced by Labor MP Madeleine King to impose a ceiling on the total payments that can be made under rent-to-buy schemes and restricts the amount rental companies and payday lenders can charge customers to 10% of their income.
In November 2016 then revenue and financial services minister Kelly O’Dwyer committed the government to lower the proposed cap on small amount credit contract and a new cap on total payments on a consumer lease.
After a backlash from Nationals MP George Christensen and other backbenchers, the government released for consultation but never introduced to parliament its legislation to enact the policy.
In August Turnbull wrote to Labor MP Milton Dick agreeing that it is “important that vulnerable consumers are afforded appropriate levels of protection”. He said that legislation “will be progressed this year, with the changes applying 12 months after its passage”.
Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie said she “can’t see why the government wouldn’t support” the payday lending bill, since it was the Coalition’s idea originally.
“We have very little protection for payday lending, which preys on the most vulnerable people, some of who don’t know they are paying hundreds of percent interest,” she told Guardian Australia.
Labor’s payday lending bill faces a steep path to success as conventional wisdom (although rejected by eminent academics and jurists) suggests an absolute majority of 76 seats is needed to suspend standing orders and pass a private members bill.
But the opposition faces a lower bar to pass its small-business access to justice measures, which are contained in a government bill that has passed the Senate. It therefore must come on for a vote which can be won by a simple majority of 75 in the lower house.
On Friday Nationals MPs Barnaby Joyce, Keith Pitt and Andrew Broad told Guardian Australia they support the measures, designed to help small business fight competition law cases against big business by applying for no-costs orders.
The assistant treasurer, Stuart Robert, has carriage of both the payday lending and small-business access to justice bills but has refused to say how the government will handle the challenges.
The Nationals’ support for Labor’s amendment to a government bill means the Morrison government must either pass the measures, which are not Liberal policy, or risk a loss on the floor of the lower house.
Labor shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said that “either way we get a win for small business”.
“This isn’t about the fortunes of a bad government, this is about benefits for good small businesses,” he told Guardian Australia.
“Access to justice for small business is a policy we’ve had for three years – it allows small businesses to take on the big end of town in court without being bankrupted by having to pay legal costs if they lose.
“It’s not an ideological measure, it’s a practical measure to boost economic growth and help small business.”
Independent MP Bob Katter will introduce a bill to use the Reserve Bank of Australia to set up a reconstruction and development board to reduce cattle farmers’ debt and interest rates.
Katter raised the plan on Wednesday, threatening to support Labor’s call for two extra sitting weeks in March unless the Coalition backed the policy. But the threat of extra weeks has receded, after MP Andrew Wilkie withdrew his support for them.