Over the Christmas break Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reportedly war-gamed the political year to come, with “all options” apparently considered.
This anecdote was relayed last month to indicate the amount of pre-planning that went into the PM’s audacious strategy to outwit the Senate, involving the Governor-General recalling Parliament to establish the justification for going to a double dissolution election.
But to what extent did Turnbull’s scenario planning really canvass all the options? Did the prime ministerial ego permit consideration of sub-optimal situations such as that in which Turnbull currently finds himself? And if so, did he leave himself options beyond going to a double D?
The most easily foreseen factor in Turnbull’s scenario planning would have been the subsidence of the PM’s popularity rating to that of mere mortals. Turnbull may have hoped his stellar run in the opinion polls would be sustained until closer to the election, but he would have been a fool not to expect it to fall at all.
However, could Turnbull have anticipated that, a bare six months after taking on the top job, Labor would be back in contention for the upcoming election? This is the trend being suggested by the swarm of opinion polls now being covered by Australia’s political media.
It may have also been relatively easy for Turnbull to predict he would remain ahead of Labor Leader Bill Shorten in the opinion polls as preferred PM. But did the PM credit the Opposition with being able to keep its nerve in the face of his initially stratospheric popularity, hanging on to its less than inspiring leader in the name of party unity?
According to one media report on the weekend, such a change was barely averted last month when a “contingency plan” to change Labor leaders was shelved in light of Turnbull’s ongoing poor form.
Similarly, would Turnbull have anticipated that voters would tire quickly of his “float and drop” approach to policy consideration, where options are raised without warning for public “discussion” only to be summarily discarded once they become too challenging to defend?
As a result, there may be a growing perception that the PM only waffles and dithers. In contrast, Shorten has appeared to become increasingly sure-footed, aided by a more streamlined appearance (yes, looks are important in politics), improved elocution, sharpened lines and a modest collection of populist policies that have so far evaded any serious scrutiny from the media or Government.
In addition to the foreseen developments are the ones that were less likely to be anticipated, such as the release of the Panama Papers and the exposure of shady behaviour by Australian corporates.
Combined with the revelations of the Liberal Party’s dodgy fundraising practices and the indulgent, self-destructive behaviour of Government MPs, these events have – rightly or wrongly – framed the Prime Minister as the protector of corporate crooks and the leader of a parliamentary wing made up of spoilt and entitled brats.
If the PM has truly considered all the options, doing a deal with the Senate crossbench on the ABCC and skipping the DD should definitely be on the table.
Given these circumstances, would it be a mistake for the PM to go to a DD election even if the Senate gives him the trigger? Analysis by the ABC’s psephologist, Antony Green, has projected the new Senate voting rules paired with the halved Senate quota at a DD would clean out some of the micro party MPs who currently sit on the crossbench. Others with a higher public profile may survive.
But if Labor continues to close in on the Coalition there is also a greater chance of a hung parliament occurring in the House of Representatives. As a result, Turnbull may well end up swapping one crossbench for another, or even ending up with two.
If Turnbull didn’t war-game this scenario over Christmas, he certainly should be doing so now.
It is not impossible to navigate legislation through the Parliament’s two chambers when the Government has only a minority in each – as the Gillard Government showed – but the dual minority status does make it difficult for the Government to argue that it has any mandate for reforms that it took to the previous election.
Consequently, there is yet another scenario the PM should be war-gaming right now. Turnbull has said he’d rather the Senate passed the Government’s legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, thereby avoiding the need for a DD election.
Several of the crossbench Senators have demanded the ABCC bills be amended to transform the proposed regulator into a federal ICAC, which is an entirely different beast. But by committing to a Senate inquiry into the establishment of a federal ICAC (which, incidentally, Labor does not support) Turnbull could possibly win the six crossbench votes needed to pass the ABCC bills.
This would also give the PM a plausible justification for passing up the chance to go to a DD, and secure up to five months more time for the Government to re-establish its favourability with voters before heading to a normal election.
In fact, a media report last month suggested the Liberal Party’s pollster, Mark Textor, advised the PM to forgo the early election and avoid calling an election altogether unless his approval rating was trending up again.
Wriggle room of this kind may be even more important if the federal budget is not received particularly well by the voters.
Granted, forgoing the DD means the Government will be saddled with a feisty and cranky Senate crossbench for another three years, but some of the alternatives – a hung parliament, no mandate, or even an election loss – are palpably less attractive.
If the PM has truly considered all the options, doing a deal with the Senate crossbench on the ABCC and skipping the DD should definitely be on the table. It would be the “float and drop” to surpass all others, but perhaps the key to the Turnbull Government’s survival.