The five key developments of the winter break

From entitlements trouble to losing momentum on tax and IR reform, these are the five developments from the winter break that have shaped the political landscape before the next election.

The six-week parliamentary winter break was meant to be an opportunity for MPs to recharge their batteries and reconnect with their electorates after the Parliament’s budget session. Yet it proved to be much more than that.

As the Parliament today witnesses the ascension of the fourth Speaker in four years, the Prime Minster and his opposition counterpart may well be contemplating the recent events that brought them to that moment.

Five developments in particular have shaped the political landscape that now stretches before them to the next federal election.

Community outrage has been unleashed

The Government’s plan for the recess was simple enough – continue selling the budget, modestly build the case for tax and IR reform, and stand by while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten looked dodgy at the union royal commission and his party squabbled at the ALP National Conference.

Yet the Prime Minister diverged from the plan, indulging in a culture war against Q&A and taking an inordinate amount of time to deal with the entitlements furore that enveloped the previous speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.

While the PM may now regret having taken so long to deal with Bishop, Shorten would also be assessing the wisdom of his chief parliamentary tactician, Tony Burke, wading into the matter. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until the media started unearthing the travel expense excesses of Labor MPs, but Burke made himself a target by trying to claim the moral high ground.

In drawing the media’s attention to himself, and thereby Labor, Burke has exacerbated voter disgust over the privileged lifestyle enjoyed and exploited by major party MPs. This outrage in turn has engendered a form of grassroots community activism, aided by online tools that can track and analyse MPs’ travel expenses, that should be the envy of formalised activist groups.

The Government and Opposition will be hoping that the colour and movement of a parliamentary session will distract the media from further investigations, and that the PM’s review of parliamentary travel entitlements will take the heat out of the issue. But there is no putting this genie back in the bottle, and all MPs should expect voters in their electorates to make travel entitlements an election issue.

Reform momentum is lost

Aside from the loss of its speaker, the greatest damage experienced by the Government over the break was its inability to sustain momentum for tax and IR reform. In both cases, PM Abbott had been trying to emulate the strategy used by John Howard to introduce the GST, creating a sense of inevitability in public discourse about the need for the reform. Last month’s love-in with the state and territory government leaders was meant to pave the way for a broader discussion on the GST, while a recent report from the Productivity Commission was intended to soften up voters on the need for workplace relations reform.

However, both issues were subsequently crowded out of the media – tax reform by the ALP National Conference, and IR reform by the ongoing entitlements saga – leaving them with as much momentum as a rusted hulk.

The Government will make attempts in the coming weeks to rekindle interest in the reforms, but it will likely require more time than is left to the next election to establish the necessary voter trust and acceptance.

IR battleground looms

Nevertheless, industrial relations will likely be one of the key issues over which the upcoming election is fought. The Government plans this week to bring on debate of its proposed legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, while another bill will be re-introduced to establish an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, which essentially is another union watchdog.

If the Senate rejects the latter bill, which is likely, the Government will have another double dissolution trigger, but the first from the current Senate. This would be important if the PM asked the Governor-General to grant a DD election. If Abbott concludes that he must hold an election before the next budget, then a DD is the best option for doing so.

Events during the winter break show the major parties relish the chance to fight an election on IR; the Government hopes the union royal commission has sufficiently tarnished Shorten and the labour movement, while the unions re-asserted their dominance at the ALP National Conference and are now finding new relevance with the impending fight on penalty rates.

The battle Abbott doesn’t want

There is, however, a different battle to which the PM will need to give his earliest attention now that Parliament has resumed. The cross-party bill to legalise gay marriage will be tabled by Liberal MP Warren Entsch*, with the attendant expectation that a decision will be made in the Liberal party room on whether MPs will be granted a free vote on the matter.

It’s possible a free vote would get up in the Liberal party room, but unlikely if the PM took the unusual but not unprecedented step of letting the Coalition party room decide instead. The failure to secure a free vote for Liberal MPs would end any chance of the cross-party bill being passed.

Meantime, Shorten, having managed at the National Conference to avert a binding vote on gay marriage being imposed on Labor MPs (with a bit of help from the labour movement), will keep the pressure on Abbott to let Liberal MPs decide. Debate on his marriage equality bill will continue on Tuesday.

Too late for a leadership change

The final key development to emerge over the winter break was opinion poll confirmation that voters are seriously unimpressed with the major parties’ leadership offerings. Neither Abbott nor Shorten are preferred by a majority of their own party supporters let alone the broader voting public.

However, both men can at least take comfort from the fact that none of the leadership contenders are stand-out competitors, and time is fast running out for a leadership change. In fact, it could be argued that time has already run out to sell a new leader to the voting public – and the PM was well aware of this timing constraint when he asked back in February for six months to prove himself.