January 25, 2014

2014 with a bang!


That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

Capping off an already jam-packed month, the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit will also hand down its interim report at the end of January. This exercise, like other inquiries launched since the federal election, is the way the government floats unpalatable actions – such as cuts to family assistance payments and ‘more efficient’ ways to fund the NDIS – without having to shoulder any opprobrium for having come up with the idea in the first place. After monitoring how voters respond to these ideas the government will likely incorporate the least politically damaging (for them) into the May federal budget.

Federal parliament resumes in February and will sit for most of March.

A week of every political wonk’s favourite performance art, the Senate Estimates hearings, will also take place in late Feb.

Next cab off the rollercoaster rank will be the first of three* state elections for 2014. One of the few remaining Labor Premiers, South Australia’s Jay Weatherill, faces a fixed-date election on 15 March. The most recent opinion poll (held in November) shows the 12 year old government is trailing 54-46%, though it will be interesting to see if Weatherill can convert South Australian voters’ angst over Holden into additional votes for Labor.

The other remaining Labor state, Tasmania, will hold an election on or before 7 June. On the past two occasions (2006 and 2010), the election has been held on the same day as South Australia. Polls indicate a strong result for the Liberals, allowing them to prevail over the 16 year old Labor government and form a majority government. This is significant for a state that has been governed by minority governments for most of the past 25 years. Tasmanian psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham reckons the Palmer United Party would have to poll around 12% to have any chance of picking up a Tasmanian seat under the Hare-Clark voting system that is used in that state. PUP is polling at around 5%.

Both state elections, while interesting for politico-geeks, will likely have fewer implications for federal politics than the Griffith by-election. But a number of other pivotal points in March could send some parties careening over the edge.

Two related but separate activities will focus on preventing micro parties from doing preference swap deals similar to those in 2013 that saw some Senators elected with only a few thousand primary votes. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has introduced his own legislation to reform preference flows and force parties to release preference deals lodged with the AEC before the election. Xenophon’s legislation was referred to a Senate committee for review soon after its introduction in November and the committee will report back to the Senate on 5 March. Both Labor and the Coalition are expected to support the legislation.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee conducting the traditional review of the federal election, including the role of micro parties’ preference deals, will receive public submissions until 7 March but won’t report until around mid year.

The full report of the Commission of Audit will also be released at the end of March, paving the way for all manner of political nasties to materialise on the Coalition Government’s to-do list. Tony Abbott has previously committed to seeking a mandate at the next federal election before implementing any industrial relations reforms that may arise from the audit. As John Howard learned before him, revoking that commitment would be akin to Abbott riding a rollercoaster without a seatbelt.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. If the Australian Electoral Commission gets its way, the re-run of the WA Senate election will occur in April. It’s feasible the Xenophon reforms on preferences deals will have been legislated by then, effectively locking out those pesky micro party candidates. Tony Abbott needs to secure three of the WA Senate positions to have the best chance of negotiating the passage of the carbon price repeal bills with the crossbenchers and has accordingly signalled his intention to turn the election re-run into a mini-referendum on the carbon tax.

Abbott may also favour a WA Senate vote in April so that it is over before the May federal budget, which Joe Hockey has already billed as a ride through the House of Horrors thanks to ‘the previous Labor Government’s incompetence’. The extent to which Hockey can convince voters that the ‘unavoidable’ spending cuts are Labor’s fault and not the Coalition’s will set the scene for the second half of the political year that commences with the new Senate on 1 July 2014.

With so many factors yet to be determined in the first six months it’s almost impossible to tell what federal politics will be like from July this year: it could be anything from a pleasant cruise in the sunshine to a hurtling decent into darkness. Either way, it will be an interesting and challenging year. Strap yourselves in.

*Victoria will go to the polls on 29 November 2014.

Since going to print, the Griffith by-election has been called for 8 February and the Commission of Audit has been granted a two-week extension for their first report, which is now due in mid-February. The Tasmanian Government has also called an election for the same day as South Australia, on 15 March.

 This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.