Parliament returns, but has the plan turned against Turnbull?

The latest developments in the union corruption and corporate malfeasance bunfights have cast a shadow over the legitimacy of Malcolm Turnbull’s rush to a double dissolution.

Against the background of two unfavourable opinion polls, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will today launch his crazy brave strategy aimed at forcing the Senate crossbench to approve contentious industrial relations reforms or risk obliteration at a double dissolution election on July 2.

The latest Newspoll shows no improvement in the Government’s primary vote over the past fortnight, while the monthly Ipsos poll echoes the decline observed by the more frequent opinion polls over the same period.

Accordingly, Newspoll continues to put Labor ahead at 51-49 per cent after the hypothetical allocation of preferences, while Ipsos places the two at 50-50 for the first time since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as prime minister.

Even without such a reminder of having failed to meet voter expectations, the PM would be well aware that this week’s manoeuvres are a high-risk strategy.

Having prevailed on the Governor-General to “summon” the Parliament to resume during its scheduled break, at no little expense to the taxpayer, Turnbull will be expected to justify the move.

The onus is on the PM to demonstrate how the IR bills in question are so important, and the Senate so obdurate, that he is warranted in sending the country to the ballot box to resolve the deadlock.

In the first instance, Turnbull will point to the findings of the royal commission into union governance and corruption, noting the need to fight the union “culture of lawlessness” in the construction industry.

Regrettably for the PM, the edge has been taken off that argument as growing evidence of corporate bad behaviour, particularly in the banking sector, points to a similar culture in the business sector where some organisations and individuals appear to think they are above the law.

In the retail business that is politics, voters will respond more strongly to issues for which they feel a direct connection. Given the testy relationship many people – or their family or friends – have with the banks, it’s hardly surprising that today’s Ipsos poll found 65 per cent of voters support the idea of a royal commission into “the behaviour of Australian banks”.

It would be fair to say that fewer voters have experienced bad union behaviour, and a smaller number would therefore see the need to clean up unions as a pressing issue.

That also appears to be borne out in the polls. While there’s no equivalent opinion poll on the trade union royal commission, the Essential poll found in October last year that 42 per cent of respondents believed the TURC was a legitimate investigation of union practices. And just last week Essential found 35 per cent of respondents supported the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ostensible reason for Parliament being recalled, while 16 per cent were opposed.

So while there’s a solid foundation of public support for the ABCC, clearly it’s more popular to bash the banks (or “big business”) than it is to bash the unions.

Populist politicians have fallen over themselves and each other in the rush to offer the truckies a sympathetic ear, usually through a megaphone, and in front of the media.

That’s why the emergence of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal as an issue is a godsend for the Prime Minister.

Just over a week ago, the Federal Court dismissed an attempt by business lobby groups, the National Road Transport Association and the Australian Industry Group, to stop the imposition of minimum pay rates for about 35,000 truck owner-drivers.

The RSRT was established by Bill Shorten as Workplace Relations Minister in 2012 to promote safety in the road transport industry by setting minimum safe rates for employee and owner-drivers. The link between truck driver remuneration and safety was made by the National Transport Commission in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, Labor and the Transport Workers Union support the new minimum pay rates. However owner-drivers are enraged by them, claiming the increase will send them to the wall.

Populist politicians have fallen over themselves and each other in the rush to offer the truckies a sympathetic ear, usually through a megaphone, and in front of the media.

Having seen the opportunity to portray embattled small business operators as being bullied by the union movement, the Prime Minister and his Workplace Relations Minister, Michaelia Cash, have also made every effort to inflame the public stoush.

Not long after the Federal Court decision, the PM vowed to scrap the RSRT, saying it was designed by Bill Shorten “to advantage the Transport Workers Union” and that it did not do anything effective on safety. Instead, the PM claimed, the tribunal “undermines owner operators … small business [and] family businesses.”

The legislative agenda for this week’s parliamentary sitting, which was wiped clean to clear the way for the industrial relations bills, now includes two additional bills – one to delay the proposed new pay rate, and another to scrap the RSRT altogether.

And then last weekend Turnbull and Cash stood proudly before a convoy of protesting truckies who’d travelled to Canberra to converge on the lawns outside Parliament, to decry Bill Shorten and the TWU for putting “these families out of business” and sending “their mortgages into default”.

The PM told the rally that Shorten would not back down on the RSRT even if he wanted to, because “he is always doing the bidding of the big unions” and that the tribunal was only ever a “recruiting effort for the Transport Workers Union”.

He also cast doubt over the link between pay rates and transport safety, calling the connection “spurious”.

The RSRT debate might appear to be about safe rates of pay for truck owner-drivers, but in reality it is about Turnbull’s hope to become a popular champion for small business against the unions.

By buying into the issue, the PM has admitted that corporate malfeasance has blunted his attack on union corruption, thereby casting a shadow over the legitimacy of his rush to a double dissolution election.