IN VISITING Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove yesterday to seek a dissolution of both Houses of Parliament, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull fired the starter’s gun on an election that — incredibly — is Bill Shorten’s to lose. With the Coalition trailing in almost every major opinion poll and Shorten facing little meaningful scrutiny from either the government or the media, the danger Shorten will triumph in 54 days’ time is all too real.
Late today, or early this evening, I will publish a piece on the LNP in Queensland that I’d half-written on Friday night — and, delayed by events, have held over until the reshuffle of shadow Cabinet is finalised — after the thoroughly deserved ascension of Tim Nicholls to the LNP leadership.
But today, the battle for government of Australia — and for the 226 seats across both the House of Representatives and the Senate — begins in earnest, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull having yesterday sought and received a dissolution of Parliament from the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, for 2 July.
Even this date — long conjectured as the likeliest date for a double dissolution on constitutional grounds — was no certainty until formalised yesterday; after a seemingly endless series of U-turns, backdowns and rudderless exercises in “decisive” government this year, and against the backdrop of repeated protestations of a “normal” election in September or October, some observers have speculated that confronted by deteriorating polls and momentum for Labor, Turnbull might chicken out.
He didn’t, and it may end up being that the timing of this election proves to be the least of the Prime Minister’s concerns.
After a partial redistribution of the House affecting Western Australia and New South Wales, the Liberal and National Parties enter this election campaign with a notional 88 of the 150 seats; Labor starts with 57 and there are five “Others,” although the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax held by Clive Palmer will almost certainly return to the Liberals, making the Coalition tally 89. A uniform swing of 4.3% would see the ALP win the 19 additional seats it requires for a majority and with them, government.
I’m not going to deal with the Senate today: there’s almost eight weeks until polling day, and there will be plenty of opportunities to talk about the upper house; rather, I’m focused on the overall outcome in the lower house — especially if an election had been held at the weekend just gone — and as ridiculous as it might have sounded six months ago, Bill Shorten is in the box seat unless something goes horribly wrong with the Labor campaign, or unless the winds of providence somehow intervene in Turnbull’s favour.
Certainly, the purported launching pad for a glorious Coalition comeback and victory — Scott Morrison’s budget six days ago — appears to have had little, if any, effect on the government’s numbers; the latest Newspoll appearing in The Australian this morning finds the Coalition registering a 49-51 deficit on the two-party measure for a third consecutive fortnight.
At best, this suggests the budget has made no difference to the government’s fortunes at all; at worst — and ominously — it invites the inference that had there not been a budget at all last week, the Coalition’s position might even have slipped further behind Labor.
Despite my trenchant opposition to Malcolm Turnbull ever becoming Liberal leader again (and consequently Prime Minister, with the party in office) this column repeatedly agitated, in the wake of the leadership change last September, for the government to call a snap double dissolution election for the last available date before Christmas, at a time Turnbull had received a substantial bounce across all polls in the honeymoon phase of his tenure.
Such an election would almost certainly have resulted in a thumping win in the lower house — possibly even by an increased majority — and offered the tantalising prospect of boosting the Coalition’s position in the Senate from 33 of 76 spots to at least 35, and possibly as high as 36 or 37, greatly reducing the need to herd unreliable, often hostile and mostly viciously anti-conservative crossbenchers into supporting legislation.
If Malcolm Turnbull is ejected from office on 2 July, the failure to call a December election will sit atop any list of the mistakes, misjudgements, blunders and own goals attributable to him; had there been an election last Saturday I am convinced the government would at best have lost its majority. Whether it did or not, the Senate could have been an even unfriendlier proposition than it is now.
And remember, the Senate — effectively controlled by Labor, the Greens, and conservative-hating Palmer Party residue — has made a very creditable attempt to destroy this government for the duration of the current Parliament.
From a standing start, it seems implausible the Coalition will avoid losing seats in any state: Queensland, which has in the past been distinctly cool toward Turnbull, could yield Labor anywhere between five and 11 seats; add in two in WA, one in SA, two in Victoria, one in Tasmania and (say) three in NSW, and even a five-seat loss in the Sunshine State would only leave the ALP five seats short of majority government. Sweep all 11 Labor believes are in play, and it could very well be all over: and that’s before at least half a dozen other potential Labor gains south of the Tweed are taken into account.
And a wildcard factor — that rump of hard-Right voters, loyal to Tony Abbott and still seething over his dumping, who claim they will vote Labor in order to “sanitise” the Liberal Party by ensuring Turnbull’s defeat and leaving the party ripe for “a cleanout” of “soft-cock moderates” — cannot be ignored; it simply isn’t prudent to dismiss them as RWNJs who are too few in number to worry about.
Even if they amount to no more than 2-3% of the electorate (or about 5% of those who voted for the Coalition under Abbott last time), they are capable of an upfront contribution to the ALP of at least half the swing it requires to win office. And that’s before Shorten starts chiselling away at swinging voters, whence the bulk of any additional Labor support will come.
If Turnbull loses, he will only have himself to blame, and if it occurs, the ramifications will be tremendous.
Malcolm’s famed defective judgement has seen not one, but two ministerial reshuffles botched; yes, some of the appointments he made were excellent, and I was careful to lavish praise on them at the time. But a foreseeable string of enforced sackings and resignations — along with several names that shouldn’t have survived the change of leadership on an impartial assessment, and other appointments that shouldn’t have been made — have played a large part in the Coalition’s present malaise.
Turnbull has found more continuity with the Abbott era in one sense that would be thoroughly unwelcome: under his leadership, as under Abbott’s, the government has proven spectacularly inept at convincingly selling its messages, blunting the attacks against it from the opposition, the minor parties, and a solid portion of the press, or of building any tangible level of public support for what it has done, or has claimed to have done, ever since it was elected.
The farce of the tax “debate” earlier this year was a rank embarrassment that afforded both the cover and the oxygen for Bill Shorten to climb off the political canvass and survive in a role he was a bee’s diaphragm away from being discarded from; the dithering, waffling, ridiculous process of floating and junking policies was a distinct turn-off to many voters, and has evaporated much of the shallow reservoir of goodwill Turnbull generated when he took the top job.
Most damningly, the Coalition has been so poor at political strategy and communication that Labor has all but pinned responsibility for its own economic vandalism and its own debt and deficit binge on the present government in the eyes of the public: and given this remains, potentially, the strongest card left in Turnbull’s hand to play, such a failure is unforgivable.
But for all of that, Shorten — an insidious candidate for the Prime Ministership — carries faults nobody seems to be able to hold him to account over. It is almost too late to do so, and the whiff of panic a flurry of activity in this regard will exude could hinder the Coalition more than it might help.
Shorten is a self-confessed liar with a proven dearth of ethics and loyalty when it comes to his dealings with his colleagues, and he admitted as much himself to 3AW host Neil Mitchell last year.
He clearly regards himself above the law; not content with totalling several cars in Carlton last year, he was later filmed sending text messages whilst driving in South Melbourne. These are just the offences he was caught for. Where there are some, there are invariably more.
Cleared of any criminal case to answer by the Royal Commission into the unions, Shorten nonetheless comes with heavy baggage and unresolved questions about a series of workplace deals he oversaw as a union leader that apparently stripped pay and conditions from his workers whilst striking monetary deals with employers.
He has promised “budget repair that is fair” with no detail other than a series of tax rises he claims will yield $102bn over ten years, despite a $20bn hole already being punched in projected revenues from promised tobacco tax hikes.
Aside from the tax rises, Shorten has offered little by way of policy other than to pander to the Greens, with ridiculous promises of two economy-destroying carbon taxes and a 50% renewable energy target that would cripple the economy and put basic essentials like heating and petrol beyond the reach of the poorest people he so stubbornly claims to stand for.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Shorten’s rhetoric adds up to a resumption of the Gillard-Swan class wars that would further divide, rather than unite, Australia: and the near-certain expansion of access to power and influence that a Shorten government would grant the most militant trade unions like the CFMEU will be a force for social and economic destruction, not cohesion.
And Shorten cannot explain why, when real spending on Health and Education — his party’s sacred cows — is at record levels (even without the money it claims was “cut” by the Coalition in both portfolios) outcomes in both areas are declining: under cover of railing against possible job losses, Labor simply bats questions of efficiency, value for money and productivity away. Again, nobody makes the case for better standards, and Shorten skips away to his next vacuous, populist stunt unscathed.
Yet no-one has effectively held Shorten to account, and I suspect no-one will; the Coalition has shown it isn’t up to this most basic political task, and most of the media (outside the Murdoch stable) is giving Shorten a free ride. Now, we have the likes of Peta Credlin singing Shorten’s praises. It’s a sign that not only has the world gone mad, but that an odious specimen who is unfit to ever serve in the highest office in the land might just find himself there by default, simply because no-one has managed to land a knockout blow when Shorten should on any reasonable judgement have been easy meat to begin with.
I may decide to provide an endorsement on polling day this year; then again, I may not.
The only recommendation I make to readers at the outset is to place Labor last in every seat in the House of Representatives, and to decline to allocate preferences to Labor candidates at all in the Senate.
This election actually matters (even though political figures say that prior to every election) and the consequences of a Labor government would be dire: there is no reason to believe a Shorten government would ever fix the structural budget deficit, which means debt will rocket toward or past the $1tn mark if he wins, meaning the costs of servicing it will rocket in tandem, and sooner or later living standards will fall sharply. Should a recession occur, such an exposed financial position will compound the impact of any downturn, with the government limited in its capacity to respond. The hardship and misery of such a slump would be profound.
Yet Shorten has a recipe for inducing a recession, too; his planned scheme to end negative gearing on property and end the discount on capital gains tax for investors is not benign, is not as painless as Shorten makes out, and would send the economy spiralling: with the property sector providing one job in four and the flow-on benefits of negative gearing through the economy of $19bn per year, the termination of negative gearing would yank $19bn out of the economy: and even a cursory knowledge of economics is sufficient to tell you that that kind of contraction is potentially enough to stop the economy in its tracks.
In short, Australia can’t afford a Labor government. And whatever misgivings it might have about the alternative, it most certainly shouldn’t elect one now.
It remains to be seen how this campaign plays out, and as ever, we’ll follow it closely: or at least, as closely as my slew of other commitments will permit.
But as I said at the outset, this election is very much Bill Shorten’s to lose, based on the current political climate. It is paramount that Australian voters are convinced to see to it that he loses it.