A Truculent Senate And Malcolm Moving Forward

SEEMINGLY SNOOKERED over the option of a double dissolution his government has virtually backed itself into attempting to call and thwarted in his ability to obtain the final crucial trigger for such a contest — with the odds on securing supply prior to a July election growing long — there is one way forward for Malcolm Turnbull, and one only: but the risk, if the Senate now thwarts him completely, is that the spectre of defeat is starting to loom.

We shouldn’t be having this conversation — we simply shouldn’t be having it — and had Malcolm Turnbull, armed with seismic approval ratings and an election-winning lead after his ascension to the Prime Ministership, called a snap double dissolution last December we wouldn’t be having it: Turnbull would be ensconced for a further three years, probably with the bulk of the Coalition’s existing large majority intact.

It doesn’t matter whether you support Malcolm Turnbull — and some of the more questionable appointments he has made to his ministry — or whether you belong to the small but noisy rump that insists you want “your elected Prime Minister back” despite a majority of the electorate not only disagreeing with you, but standing ready to reward such a return with an excursion to the opposition benches: today I want to talk about the last defiant stand being played out in the Senate, its implications for the Coalition’s election and policy agendas (such as they are, in the latter case), and the likely course of electoral behaviour as things currently stand.

And that means that I’m not interested in any diversions about the return of Tony Abbott today.

Last night, Mark Kenny published an analysis piece in the Fairfax press that is well worth a read; I’m using it today because of the various options on offer, it probably best sums up both the antics of the recalcitrant Senate — as irresponsible crossbench Senators apparently glory in what might yet prove their last stand — and the bind in which Turnbull finds himself, but in a twist, the roots of the government’s narrowing options to get to the polls quickly are embedded much earlier in the political timeline, and the blame for them rests squarely with Abbott and the defective, dysfunctional approach he and his “brains” trust deployed toward executing their program.

Over the past couple of months, rhetoric (from Turnbull and others) about an election in September or October has imperceptibly softened; at the same time, a double dissolution election has evolved into a “live option” which has increasingly been brandished whenever the question of election speculation has arisen.

An election in July, as some in the government have been wont to assert, would not be “early” some nine weeks before the three-year anniversary of the 2013 poll, and whilst they’re technically correct in that bulk of a three-year term will have expired by that time, nobody is under any illusions as to what the game has been.

Very simply, the government has as good as committed itself to a double dissolution election, with 2 July the likeliest (and in my mind, only) feasible date: but the Senate — even Turnbull’s new chums at the Communist Party Greens, who have guaranteed the passage through the Senate of necessary reforms that will (not coincidentally) probably benefit them more than anyone else at a double dissolution — is proving stubbornly welded to the objective of inflicting as much pain on the government as it can.

For procedural reasons, it has been necessary for the government to press ahead this week with either the bills for the Senate reforms or for the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission; the latter, having already been thrown out by the Senate once, must be defeated a second time to provide a crucial trigger for Turnbull’s nominated campaign theme: union corruption in Australian workplaces and on building sites.

Predictably, the electoral changes have come first, guaranteed to pass as they are with the support of the Greens.

But to secure both the Senate reforms and the double dissolution trigger, the Senate must sit again one week earlier, on 3 May, than currently scheduled; the budget is due to be delivered on 10 May, and the final date to call a 2 July election (or any double dissolution election during this term of Parliament) is 11 May: which means the ABCC legislation would have to be voted down on 10 May, a temporary supply bill passed to guarantee the government funds during the election period with the full budget waiting until after the election, and with the Senate changes occupying this sitting period of the Senate, a 3 May reconvention is required to reintroduce the ABCC bills.

(An excellent longer form article on the Constitutional and practical considerations of a double dissolution, and the procedural landscape to be navigated in order to get to one, was published yesterday by the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green. Readers can access that piece here).

Labor, the Greens and the minor parties have all refused to support the recall of the Senate for May 3, and the Senate — not the government — has the final say on whether or not such a sitting week goes ahead; if it doesn’t, there is no election trigger to restore the ABCC, although the government does have a related trigger in the form of Registered Organisations legislation designed to force the unions to the same standards of accountability and disclosure as the business sector that has already been voted down twice.

So here we are: the government has obliged itself to call a double dissolution it might be impossible to proceed with, whilst some of the legislation it wants to pass at a Joint Sitting of Parliament after such an election might not be available at all.

It’s instructive to note Labor is refusing to take steps that would enable a July election, but in trying to shut that option off is also pushing toward a later election at which it will be harder to increase its own Senate numbers; if Bill Shorten was really as confident as his reckless, opportunistic rhetoric proclaims, he would do anything to engineer the earliest polling date humanly possible.

That the ALP — which could combine with the government to recall Parliament — is refusing to play ball is telling, for it suggests Shorten and his cronies know it’s too soon for them to have any real hope of winning. Yes, the ABCC is anathema to Labor (and more particularly, to its masters at Trades Hall). But if Labor were confident of even a chance of winning in July, it would allow the ABCC bills to be introduced, help knock them back down, and head off towards polling day happily knowing that Shorten was under no obligation to proceed with them (or to call a Joint Sitting at all) if he won.

So let’s be clear about something: right now, despite the shaky standing of the government on trend in the polls, Labor has no confidence of winning an election right now. It’s a useful point, especially if you’re Turnbull with seven or eight weeks until budget day up your sleeve.

And we should be clear about something else, too: for all the talk six months ago about a decisive, “thoroughly liberal” government that would respect voters’ intelligence and advocate for meaningful and necessary economic reform, budget repair, and the pursuit of economic growth, Malcolm Turnbull’s government to date has proven little better than the opaque, dysfunctional outfit it replaced.

But even if the option of a double dissolution is thwarted, as seems increasingly likely, there is still a way forward for the government, but the time to break a few eggs if it is serious about making an omelette — rather than a sticky mess — is now.

Still, the minor party Senators have been having a whale of a time; Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir (with his 0.51% of the Victorian vote) moved to debate the ABCC legislation, knowing the electoral reform bills had to be tabled this week if they are to be passed with the three months’ grace period the Electoral Commission says it needs to implement the changes ahead of an election; the government had to vote down the opportunity to pass the other legislation it also specifically needs to have in hand for the election it wants.

The same tactic was wheeled out by Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, trying to force the Greens to shift course and debate a bill to legalise gay marriage; despite their “every Green, every vote, every time” mantra on the issue, the Greens found themselves voting that down too.

But just to muddy the water, the Greens have seemingly thrown in their lot with everyone else not sitting on the Coalition benches to deny the government the extra sitting week it needs for the ABCC legislation, and one would have to expect that even without the ABCC bills to vote on, the same amalgam of cross-party self-interest will also refuse to pass a temporary supply bill on 10 May: just to spite the government because it can.

I think Turnbull’s best course of action is to proceed with plans for a double dissolution election; after all, everyone knows it’s coming, and the humiliation of failing to secure the supply bill (which would enable Turnbull to advise the election) won’t leave any more egg on government faces than they will wear if they don’t attempt to do so.

Whichever way you sift it, Turnbull is already going to look very silly if there is no election on 2 July. He might as well do whatever he can to avail himself of someone to point the finger at. And if he manages to get to the polls he at least has the Registered Organisations bill to pass at a Joint Sitting, which is better than nothing at all.

But with that said, the weeks before Scott Morrison delivers the budget offer one final opportunity for the Coalition to get its act together, and to start looking like both a functional government and an effective political machine ready to pounce on its opponents in an election setting.

For a start — with entrenched average annual budget deficits of about $40bn showing no authentic signs of going away — Morrison and Finance minister Matthias Cormann could do worse than to dust off the Commission of Audit report former Treasurer Joe Hockey unwisely sat on for months, before producing it a week out from the 2014 budget; the structural abyss in government finances remains a gaping one, and deep spending cuts remain as integral to any attempt to fix it now as it did back then.

Hockey, of course, failed spectacularly to make that case to the public — or to effectively sell anything else, for that matter — and a good place to start would be for the government to begin to provide a backdrop for its economic discourse based on the true state of the books, in unvarnished detail and made simply and forcefully, and keep on hammering its key points all the way to election day: whenever that turns out to be, of course.

The time for brain farts, thought bubbles, kite-flying of potential reforms only to unilaterally rule them out — and restrict the scope to do anything much at all — has to stop, right now, this very day; as it is, GST reform, negative gearing changes, and a swathe of other potential areas for reform are now off-limits. Eerily, it is reminiscent of the foolish “no changes to this, no changes to that” speech inadvisedly made by Abbott in the dying days of the 2013 election campaign, and Turnbull is as hamstrung by ruling things out as his predecessor was.

Despite the political risks, and the certain scare campaign it will elicit from Labor, part of any “reset” of the economic dialogue must include the announcement of a decision by the government to re-examine every aspect of the government’s expenditure and revenue commitments to develop a comprehensive suite of reforms.

It might be — in committing such a drastic, but necessary, about-face — that Turnbull has to perform a Peter Beattie-style mea culpa: I’m sorry, I ruled everything out, it’s my fault, I’ll fix it…and we’re going to start over, and get it right.” On one level, the political risks associated with such an announcement are blunted by the fact that aside from a huge slate of tax hikes, the ALP doesn’t have any policies at all: and an election conducted in an environment of massive tax slugs from the ALP versus working to cut spending and cut taxes from the Coalition would see Turnbull’s MPs sally forth in their electorates with a theme they could sell.

Then there are two other tasks: one, Morrison’s budget, and two, the vexing matter of exactly what program the government might take to the people whenever the election occurs.

I think a no-frills budget, without election bribes or giveaways and little else to rock the boat, is the right approach: after all, an election is at most months away, and there would be more credibility in setting out a program for voters to approve prior to legislating it afterwards. Next year’s budget, clearly, will be a spicier affair. But there is no money — partly because there can be no meaningful savings passed through the current Senate — and the “fistful of dollars” approach doesn’t win elections any more. If it did, John Howard and Peter Costello would have been re-elected with their $30bn tax cut pledge in 2007.

Even so, tax cuts have been one of those things run up the flagpole, allowed to flutter around a little, then hastily torn back down: there simply isn’t the cash to pay for them, and abandoning the idea is the responsible thing to do.

But just like every other reform proposal that has been considered and jettisoned by the government to date, this one may cost a votes too, as disgruntled voters lose patience with what Turnbull promised at the outset would be brilliant, but has proven merely mediocre as it has progressed.

What Turnbull, Morrison, Cormann and their colleagues can do — under the cover of seven weeks until the budget, and with a narrative around budget repair starting to seep out — is to shut up for part of the time and get their policy proposals sorted out.

If there are many more kites flown, with nothing to show for the spectacle, there is a growing risk that voters will simply switch off and stop listening. Once this occurs — and it’s a truism of political life — you’re finished, and we have seen this as Gillard, Howard, and Keating all endured final years in office in which nobody paid much attention at all to anything they had to say.

If the entrenched pattern of indecision continues much longer, Turnbull risks experiencing the same phenomenon. On average and on the critical two-party measure, Labor has already drawn close to or level with the government again in the polls. Not all of this movement is due to positive reactions to ALP policy, and it certainly isn’t the result of the appeal of Labor’s “leader” (he hasn’t got any). It is entirely reasonable to infer that through doing very little indeed, the government is feeding the electoral prospects of its rivals. It leaves little room to manoeuvre, and it is why I have repeatedly warned that the longer it takes for Turnbull to get to the polls, the greater the risk that Labor might in fact beat him.

It scarcely bears thinking about.

But in the meantime, firm policies need to be locked away and, progressively, released; people were expecting a tax policy by now. Where is it? Industrial Relations reform…where’s that proposal? It is true the government is working on many of these packages, as it should be. But if it still harbours ideas of an election in July, it is going to have to get its skates on.

And either way, with time running out, some of these measures may have to take the form of “headline” or “direction” statements, setting out broad frameworks onto which solid detail can be grafted after an election; again, it is a risky approach, but the clock is conspiring against Turnbull now as much as any other factor. He had twelve months on his term when he became Prime Minister; half of that is now gone — his polling lead with it — and there’s nothing to show for six months of indecision.

Nothing I am suggesting today is rocket science, and whilst I remain to be convinced the government can actually sell anything it comes up with — and my door is open to help on that score — there is ample evidence that voters are prepared to accept tough reforms if they can be persuaded they are necessary.

The Abbott government failed to persuade anyone that the (mostly) wrong “reforms” were necessary at all; in Turnbull’s case, no reforms have been produced for anyone to evaluate.

Except, of course, the reforms to the Senate, and the only people complaining about those are the ones whose gravy train of self-interest will rightly be permanently derailed once the laws are enacted.

And that brings up my final point on Turnbull’s double dissolution prospects, or even his ability to call such an election at all.

I was arguing from the moment Tony Abbott was elected that if the Senate started voting down his government’s program, he should move to rack up as many double dissolution triggers as possible: the very prospect of a double dissolution would itself act as a deterrent to the crossbench to a degree, as would the gradual accumulation of triggers to make good on the threat.

Instead, some legislation was abandoned; some was withdrawn, with items like the ABCC bills only seeing the light of day again now; and in some cases, “deals” were done with the likes of Clive Palmer — the removal of the mining tax is a good example — in which the government’s basic objectives were achieved, but with conditions and expenditure attached that meant any intended savings were partly or wholly eliminated, or even added to the sea of red ink on the budget balance sheet rather than reducing it.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if people wonder why I was so adamant that parliamentary strategy under Abbott was an abject failure, its consequences are being laid bare now for all to see.

Had the Senate been handled more astutely, the government would now have potentially dozens of double dissolution triggers, and whilst it might still fail to obtain a temporary supply bill — and provided the electoral changes had been attended to sooner than they have been — then the ability to dissolve both houses might never have been an issue, and it might have already happened.

But to close, I think the Turnbull government is at its crossroads: with sure steps and definitive action, combined with astute strategic and tactical plays and a little luck, and it can still win an election later this year.

But to continue as it has been — and especially if the double dissolution option disappears, giving Labor and its allies yet more time to chip away at the government and try to knock it over — the longer Turnbull leaves calling an election, the tougher (and rougher) the going will become.

Turnbull is not invincible. The government is not guaranteed a second term. Defeat, unthinkable three months ago, is again a distinct possibility.

There is one final opportunity for the Turnbull government to reset its compass. The time for that is now.

 

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