Malcolm Turnbull has essentially called the election months before polling day. We can now look forward to a 15-week festival of finger pointing.
Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finally put paid to the numerous calls for decisions and certainty by drawing a line in the sand, daring the Senate to thwart him, and declaring a double dissolution election would be held on July 2 if it did.
He also confirmed the federal budget would be brought forward a week and delivered on May 3.
The PM announced he had asked the Governor-General to recall Parliament on April 18, neatly over-ruling any objection the Senate might have to re-convening, so that the once-rejected bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission can be reconsidered by the Upper House.
If the ABCC bill is rejected again, Turnbull will have demonstrated to the Governor-General that a DD election is needed to clear the log-jam created by the obstructionist Senate.
There is a slight but unlikely possibility the Senate crossbench, having just been consigned to the electoral rubbish bin by last week’s voting reforms, could call the PM’s bluff and pass the ABCC bill. But they will be under considerable pressure from Labor, the Greens and the unions not to bring back the union nemesis.
Either way, Turnbull has risked doing what only one prime minister has done before – and very badly at that – which is to essentially call the election months before polling day.
We can now expect the festival of finger pointing that was a feature of last week’s Senate debate to become even more shrill and hyperbolic as the laying of blame and attendant calls for electoral punishment become an unavoidable feature of the 2016 election campaign.
Last week’s marathon debate in the Senate was ostensibly about changes to the process for electing senators that would prevent the system being further exploited by the micro parties. However, Labor’s belated change of heart over the reforms, from support when Parliament looked at the issue in 2014 to opposition now, belied the true purpose of the theatrics.
Labor increasingly has to defend its left flank against the Greens and therefore find ways to pull its opponent down from the progressives’ pedestal.
By creating a fuss with overnight antics in the Senate, Labor now has documentary evidence – in the form of media coverage – to use during the election campaign to “prove” the minor party abandoned its progressive principles by siding with the party of Bernardi and Christensen to pass the Senate reforms.
Labor’s previous support for the reforms (and the fact it is now going against the advice of an internal party review and that of its own spokesman on the issue, Gary Gray), or the Greens’ longstanding policyon the matter, will be ignored so as not to confuse the voters with such minor contextual details.
Similarly, stunts pulled during the Senate debate, such as forcing the Greens to withstand calls to bring on lengthy digressions on gay marriage and political donations, will be cited by Labor as further proof of the Greens’ despoilment.
There will be no concession from Labor however that the rifts within its ranks would have been exposed if the Greens had called its bluff on gay marriage and actually brought on the vote.
In many respects, the Greens will have an easier run during the election campaign when it comes to laying blame against their opponents.
The progressive party alone can claim the high moral ground on two totemic issues – asylum seekers and gay marriage – which provides them with a strong foundation upon which to claim Labor’s unwillingness to act on either issue makes the party culpable for the associated injustices being perpetrated.
Of course, finger-pointing during the election won’t be confined to the civil war simmering between the two left-of-centre parties.
If voters are sent to a double dissolution election in July, Labor and the Greens will go into battle to protect their union constituencies. Both parties will attempt to pre-emptively blame the Turnbull Government for apocalyptic workplaces and ruined livelihoods created by the twice-spurned industrial relations reforms that triggered the double dissolution, and would likely be passed by a joint sitting of the Parliament if the Coalition is re-elected.
For its part, the Government will try to turn Labor’s connections with the union movement from a strength into a weakness. This was the original intent of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which found some incidences of bad behaviour by union officials, but inconveniently (for the Coalition) not enough to condemn the whole movement.
Nevertheless, the Government will blame Labor and its leader Bill Shorten for being beholden to the unions, pointing to the Opposition’s refusal to pass the industrial relations reform bills as “proof” the ALP would rather stick by dodgy unions than make workplace laws more flexible to help the economy become more productive.
It will be interesting to see how the Government deals with its new-found friends in the Greens when it comes to IR reform, given the minor party is also very supportive of the labour movement. One of the unions that fared less well under the spotlight of the Royal Commission, the CFMEU, is also one of the Greens’ major financial donors.
Given the minor party is also likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate after a double dissolution election, it may not be that surprising if PM Turnbull – keeping an eye to post-election Senate negotiations – treats the newly-pragmatic Greens with kid gloves during the election.
However, any decision by Turnbull to strategically pull his punches with the Greens could expose the PM to more accusations by the conservatives within his own party that he is a barely-disguised socialist.
The pushback from the hard right forces within the Coalition Government has continued almost unabated in recent weeks, sometimes emboldened by tactical interventions from former PM Tony Abbott. And the conservatives’ victory late last week in reining in the Safe Schools program has laid bare the extent to which Turnbull is apparently prepared to make material concessions to placate the right.
But as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten pointed out in the Parliament on this topic, giving in to bullies tends only to encourage them. There is no evidence to suggest the Turnbull critics within his administration will rest until the Government is torn apart by internal dissent, voters throw the Coalition onto the electoral scrapheap, and the Abbott forces claim their Pyrrhic vindication.
More than Labor and the Greens, these Coalition MPs may welcome today’s Newspoll suggesting a further diminution in the PM’s approval ratings, even if the survey also claims the Government’s primary vote remains healthy and the Coalition is still well-positioned to win the federal election.
It’s no secret the parties have been gearing up for some time to run a blame campaign this election – they’ve clearly been testing and rehearsing their lines since the beginning of the year.
What is less clear is how voters will respond to the strategy. They would be wise to not only look at who’s being blamed and why, but also the credibility and motives of those who are doing the pointing.