A pre-budget election would be an insult to our intelligence


According to The Australian, two of Malcolm Turnbull’s closest advisers – Treasurer Scott Morrison and Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – want the PM to cash in early on his high approval ratings by going to the polls within the first half of this election year.

The counter argument, reportedly being put by the new federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Nutt, is that voters won’t be happy about being rushed to an election when the Government has not put forward a reason for why it should be brought forward from the second half of this year.

Former PM Tony Abbott would likely have pushed for an early poll too, using the royal commission into union corruption to create momentum, as well as Labor’s ongoing refusal to pass the union-busting laws already twice rejected by the Senate.

PM Turnbull may have a similar plan, having recently flagged his intention to introduce a strengthened version of the proposed law and reintroduce the bill that would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, following its first rejection by the Senate.

Seemingly with an early poll in mind, the PM placed an arbitrary deadline on the ABCC legislation, claiming if it is not passed by the end of March “then in one form or another it will be a major issue at the next election“.

However, it’s worth noting the phrasing of that prime ministerial threat – Turnbull merely confirmed the ABCC legislation would be an issue at the next election, not the trigger for holding one.

This is because there are only a few double dissolution options available to the Government this year, and bringing on a DD election would invite electoral and political complications that PM Turnbull could frankly do without.

With Parliament recommencing in February, debate on the union bills taking place in March, and the entire month of April being taken up by school holidays across the states and territories, the first five-week period available for an early election campaign would not occur until the beginning of May.

Calling an election at that time would allow for a DD election to be held on June 4 or 11, but no later because a DD cannot be held less than six months before the House of Representative’s three-year term is due to expire (in this case Nov 11, 2016).

As explained by the ABC’s Antony Green back in December, and reiterated in advice from the Senate clerk reported by The Australian last week, a DD election would throw the timing of future Senate and House of Representatives elections out of alignment, risking the wrath of constituents who would then have to vote in elections for one of the two chambers every couple of years.

The only way to remedy this disconnect would be to hold another full election by May 2018, only two years into what would have otherwise been a three year term. That gives hardly enough time for even a nimble Turnbull Government to bed down its contentious economic reforms before having to face voters again.

A double dissolution election would also potentially open the Senate floodgates to minor and micro party candidates, not only because a DD halves the quota of votes needed to get elected to the Senate, but because the Government has been unsuccessful in outlawing the preference-harvesting deals that saw some Senators elected in 2013 with only a microscopic proportion of the primary vote.

A large and unwieldy Senate crossbench would also make it difficult for Turnbull to implement any necessary but unpopular reforms.

However, there’s an even more compelling reason why the PM should eschew suggestions of an early election.

Turnbull’s first public pitch for the prime ministership last year was based on Abbott having failed to show economic leadership. Turnbull offered a necessarily different style of leadership, one that supposedly would explain the complex issues that Australia faced, set out the courses of action needed, and make the case for that action.

“We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people,” said our hopeful PM in waiting. Yet taking voters to the polls before bringing down a budget would reduce those words to hollow rhetoric.

An unseemly rush to the ballot box without an adequate explanation of the Government’s plans for economic repair would be an insult to our intelligence. It would also expose the PM and his Treasurer to the Labor accusation that they have something to hide.

Voters were initially prepared to humour Treasurer Hockey’s “lifters and leaners” rhetoric until the 2014 budget exposed the slogan to be little more than a cruel hoax.

These days the electorate is clearly not so trusting. Labor’s continued banging of the fairness drum suggests their market research shows voters are not yet convinced Morrison et al won’t try to pull a similar swifty.

The new regime will only be able to overcome voters’ residual trust issues if it takes the time and effort described by Turnbull when he publicly wooed the Liberals’ party room last year.

Perceptions of fairness will also be critical. Turnbull has made a necessary virtue of fairness, saying that while it obviously is in the eye of the beholder, “fair is going to be whether people look at it and say ‘yep, that seems fair enough‘”.

And so, through his own words, the onus is on the Prime Minister to treat voters intelligently as well as fairly. Going to an early election does neither, no matter how politically expedient – or tempting – it may be to do so.