Italian Job: Abbott Partly Right On Senate Reform Call

THERE IS great merit in the call by Tony Abbott — reported in The Australian today — for a proper, multifaceted overhaul of the Senate to remove the parliamentary gridlock into which Australian government is sliding; Abbott is right to conclude that the upper house is no longer a “house of review,” much less a “States’ House.” But the measures he advocates are yet another Band-Aid approach where radical surgery is in fact warranted.

The problem of Australia’s entrenched, anti-democratic and unrepresentative Senate is one we have periodically contemplated in this column, and something that is the fault of both the ALP and the Coalition parties for creating; it is Labor’s fault for the electoral “fiddles” — in 1948 and, particularly, in 1984 — that enabled the enduring mess in the upper house to even be possible, and it is the Coalition’s fault for lacking the backbone, ideas and the communications skills with which to persuasively argue for and implement a solution to it.

The “reform” of the Senate electoral system enacted by the Turnbull government last year should be dismissed with contempt as ineffectual, infinitesimal, and proof of the Coalition’s current dearth of nous or will where advocacy for significant and meaningful reform is concerned.

I have been reading Paul Kelly’s piece in The Weekend Australian today — a preview of a speech “to be delivered in the next few days” by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that will call for “resolute action” to break the gridlock in Australian politics that the Senate, rigged, gamed and hijacked as a battering ram, imposes — with more than a little interest; the state of the Senate is an ugly stain on Australian democracy, and anyone who claims my arguments on this subject are born purely of political self-interest need only compare the architecture of the upper house today to what was created by Australia’s founders in 1901. There is almost no resemblance between the two whatsoever.

And the reason this is such an indictment on the national polity is that the two rounds of change that are most responsible for this mess were never endorsed by voters at a referendum at all.

Labor’s 1948 changes — which increased the size of the House of Representatives from 74 to 121 seats, and the Senate from 36 to 60 — were, on one level, entirely justified due to population growth.

Its 1984 changes — expanding the lower house from 125 to 148 seats, and the Senate from 64 to 76 — were similarly justified on the same grounds.

But the introduction of proportional representation to the Senate by Labor in 1948 opened a Pandora’s box that the ALP revisited in 1984 with no better rationale than attempting to permanently destroy the ability of its opponents to control the upper house; it is true that the first past the post system that applied to the Senate prior to the 1949 election — with each state voting “as a single electorate,” as the Constitution puts it — routinely produced lopsided electoral results that gave one side or the other an iron grip on the Senate: and as the non-Labor parties were arguably the natural parties of government until 1983, this more often than not meant the ALP was rendered toothless in the upper house.

The primary driver for the 1984 changes, of course, derived from the events of November 1975 — when the Malcolm Fraser-led opposition used an upper house majority to engineer the dismissal of the Whitlam government — and Labor’s determination to never again permit the Coalition to achieve control of the Senate; reforms involving the introduction of proportional representation have been imposed by Labor on upper houses in every state Parliament that has one over the past few decades as well, with varying degrees of success in stopping the Coalition controlling them.

I have published previously on this issue; in November 2014, in a piece readers can access here, which was in turn a development of an earlier piece from October 2013, which can be viewed here.

I have suggested more than once in the past that the House of Representatives — with each MP responsible for some 110,000 electors, as opposed to 60,000-ish in 1984 — needs to be increased in size again, to 180 or even 200 seats; this is hardly a surprise, given Australia’s population has grown from 14 million to 25 million in the same period.

The UK’s 45 million registered voters (or roughly triple the number of voters in Australia), to offer a comparison, are served by 650 members of the House of Commons (or 600 once a pending reduction of the size of the Commons is completed).

But I am insistent that the Senate should not be increased in size; the further its numbers are increased on the current electoral system, the greater the scope for tiny parties to “win” seats on a sliver of a fraction of the primary vote becomes: such is the impact of “preference gaming” that has arisen over the past decade, completing and compounding the effects of Labor’s 1984 changes, and which is the final component of the anti-democratic mess the Senate is today.

In fact, I see no need whatsoever for 76 Senators in Australia at all: the USA, with 320 million people, has 100. Australia is the most overgoverned country in the world, and whilst I am open to abolishing the states in favour of a two-tiered system based on a Commonwealth government devolving spending and service delivery to localised regional authorities, that’s an argument for another time.

But the size of the Senate isn’t, and there is no reason — aside from the stipulation of Section 24 of the Constitution, which dictates the House must be as nearly as practicable twice the size of the Senate — why its numbers cannot be cut to the 64 spots that applied to it prior to 1984.

It is here that I begin to find fault with the Abbott argument.

The former PM (as reported by Kelly) makes no mention of a referendum question to break the nexus S24 imposes in relation to the size of the Houses of Parliament; on a particularly minimalist interpretation of constitutional change, the easiest way to give effect to the solution Abbott seeks is to abolish S24 or modify it significantly, increase the size of the lower house, and cut the number of Senators.

But this would leave in place the proportional system that Abbott rightly fingers as the culprit responsible for decades of political instability and chaos in Italy, where unsteady governments are cobbled together based on inconclusive proportional election results, and which fall on average every 12-18 months on account of their inability to effectively govern.

As readers will see from the past articles I have linked to today’s piece, I have outlined previously an alternative solution: upper house districts, akin to the system that applied in Victoria prior to 2002 when the ALP junked it and replaced it with a token proportional voting system, that return one Senator at half-Senate elections, and two at full Senate elections, based on a preferential voting system.

In some respects, the point here is that a plethora of alternative models exist for overhauling the Senate; I suggest that the “solution” implemented by the Turnbull government last year — an “optional preferential” approach to proportional voting — was just a Band-Aid to avoid tackling, head-on, the much greater problem that the Senate voting system itself needed overhauling rather than tinkering around the edges.

But even if we work with an assumption that proportional voting stays — a prospect that is anathema to anyone who believes democratic government should reflect the will of the majority rather than pandering to minorities — there are still changes that could be made that would give effect to some of what Abbott, others like him, and myself have been agitating for.

Placing a threshold on the percentage of primary votes required to qualify for election to the Senate is the obvious one; those who oppose such a measure (overwhelmingly, people from the political Left) are wont to rhetorically ask why, if a candidate or party gets 10% of the vote, they shouldn’t get 10% of the seats?

In isolation, it’s a fair argument, and one answered by the fact that at a half-Senate election in each state, one-sixth of the six Senate berths up for grabs equates to 16% of the available seats; at a double dissolution, one-twelfth equates to about 8% of the available seats. It would be just as fair to say that 16% (or 8% at a double dissolution) was a reasonable ask in terms of electoral performance to qualify for election to office.

There goes the argument that Ricky Muir, on 0.5% of the primary vote in Victoria in 2013, deserved to be elected; there, too, goes the argument that any or all of the candidates who have polled less than 8% at any election deserve to be elected either (and in the past few decades, this ensnares dozens of independent and minor party candidates, including — regularly in some states — the Communist Party Greens).

A further justification these people offer up is that a party winning 8% of the national Senate vote should be rewarded with 8% of the Senate spots (which, to the nearest whole number, is 6 Senators). But Senate elections are in fact conducted on a state-by-state basis, and such an argument is thus a fallacy.

I make these points because I have argued in the past that a primary vote threshold of 5% to qualify for election (with the threshold to qualify for public election funding lifted from 4% to 5% to align the two benchmarks) is not only reasonable, but it would actually represent a discount to the number of votes proportionally required to justify election at all, and frankly — with an eye to the myriad of single-issue minorities who think they are entitled to a seat in Parliament in the first place — if 5% of the vote in any given state is too much for them to achieve, then they shouldn’t be elected at all.

Seats in Parliament are not some divine right, legitimised by arcane preference-harvesting deals: they can and should actually require a reasonable level of direct actual public support.

These are considerations, based on Kelly’s reportage of the Abbott position, that appear to have been overlooked.

I agree with Abbott completely when he speaks of the disenchantment of Australians with the political process; a government that can deliver either nothing at all, or merely some lowest-common denominator fix that clears the Senate but in practice pleases nobody, is a government few will  be satisfied with — and rightly so.

I am also, as regular readers well know, a proponent of the notion that governments should be allowed to implement their agenda in full, and then subject to the verdict of voters at the ballot box, and the present system in the Senate, now operating at its logical conclusion thanks to increased quotas and preference harvesting arrangements (irrespective of what Turnbull did to it last year), makes such a quaintly democratic objective impossible to give effect to.

The disgusting spectacle between 2013 and 2016 of the Senate going on disgraceful witch hunts to destroy state governments and to openly seek to destroy the government in the lower house, contrived by Labor, the Greens, and Clive Palmer’s mad little outfit, is another foreseeable consequence of the 1984 Senate changes that should never have been permitted to occur.

It was the final proof — if more was required — that the Senate is not a “States’ House,” nor a “house of review,” but a political instrument that could be used to batter governments to death: even governments well beyond Canberra and the direct remit of the Senate itself.

I disagree with the Abbott idea of regular joint sittings of Parliament to clear deadlocked legislation; in practice, we would be having joint sittings all the time, so to speak, as the Senate would dig in even deeper if it is hostile to a government in the lower house on the hope some additional votes could be rounded up from lower house MPs to counter the majority of the government of the day.

The Turnbull government, for example, would be lucky to pass legislation at such a sitting at all, which is why no joint sitting was convened after last year’s double dissolution election: the government’s grip. not just on office but on Parliament itself, is metaphorically held by the fingernails on one hand, and is insecure to say the least.

Including change in any constitutional reform referendum to enable a new Senate to be convened immediately after an election and at the same time as a freshly elected House of Representatives, however, would be something well worth exploring — and Abbott apparently has failed to explore that avenue as well.

But broadly, I think Tony Abbott is on the right track here: the current arrangements for electing the Senate are undemocratic, unrepresentative and unstable, and better befit some third world country experimenting with a fumbling move toward democracy than a first world western country with a tradition of democratic process stretching back more than 100 years.

And in a final nod to accusations of political self-interest, I should note that like any cynical fix — just as Labor’s 1984 changes now work to its, and the Greens,’ seemingly permanent advantage, as they were intended to — they can also bite their proponents on the arse, as occurred in 2004 when the Howard government unexpectedly managed to win a narrow Senate majority.

Any doubt about the bona fides of “democratic” ALP electoral reform should be dispelled with one glance north of the Tweed River, where the optional preferential voting system introduced by the Goss government (as part of Fitzgerald-directed anti-corruption reforms, no less) has been cynically junked by the current Labor state government to a) force Greens voters to allocate preferences, which can confidently be expected to break the ALP’s way by an 80-20 margin, and b) capitalise on emerging splits in the non-Labor vote.

What goes around comes around, which is why — with the basic premise that the Senate is broken, and must be fixed, beyond reasonable dispute — a solution that eliminates all of these anomalies and dysfunctionalities, and produces a democratic and representative upper house, is well past due.

Such an enterprise requires radical surgery, not a Band-Aid. In this sense Abbott’s ideas are a step in the right direction, but he still has some way to go to find the solution.

This effort will be viciously opposed on the Left by a self-interested ALP and others, who bleat about excluding voices from government and a “less diverse” Parliament, and rendered almost useless by a Coalition whose “tactical” and “strategic” prowess has been shown, over the past four years, to be as good as non-existent.

Abbott has his work cut out for him. We wish him well.

 

Claiming Victory: A Prime Minister’s Speech To Australians

IN A CHOICE between dignifying the puerile drivel and arrogant hubris being indulged in by opposition “leader” Bill Shorten — or a statesmanlike address to the country by the Prime Minister, filled with humility, direction and fresh ideas — this column today inclines to the latter; there is a path through the ostensibly unworkable Parliament Malcolm Turnbull has been handed by voters. Whether he elects to pursue it is a matter for him.

 

MY FELLOW AUSTRALIANS,

I want to begin my remarks today with an apology.

Last Saturday, you spoke to us through the ballot box — to me, to my government, and to all of us in politics — and you told us, loudly and clearly, that you were not happy.

Today it is my duty to accept the opportunities and challenges that go hand in hand with another chance to form government in Australia, and in doing so can I simply say that I am humbled and excited to have been given that chance.

I accept that by entrusting my colleagues and I with the task of governing Australia, the very notion of “trust” is one we must work hard to rebuild: I have heard your message, and over the next three years my colleagues and I look forward to spending more time with you, talking about the issues that matter in your lives and your communities, so we can better understand what you want from your government and take steps to ensure that we deliver it.

For too long in Australia and especially during the recent campaign, politics has been conducted in an atmosphere of abuse, of fear, and sometimes — regrettably — hatred.

I’m not going to dwell on that today and in fact, I want to make an attempt to put that behind us, so we can get on with building Australia, working to resolve her problems and to encourage the hopes and dreams of our fellow Australians, and to make sure this remains the best country in the world for decades and generations to come.

And for that reason, my government will be making a very big invitation to the deputy leader of the Labor Party, subject to discussions we seek to have with our opponents, to join the government as minister for Health.

During the next three years, we face unprecedented challenges, imposed upon us by your will: a close result in the lower house and a fragmented Senate will make the job of governing difficult, but I believe it is not impossible and we will do our very best to live up to the clear expectation for improvement that you told us last weekend that you expect.

I accept that we have made mistakes and I accept, that since becoming Prime Minister, I have made my share of those.

But I firmly believe that today is a new day, and in that spirit we will seek to work with Mr Shorten, and his colleagues, to explore ways in which we can improve how we do our jobs, and to explore ways in which we can resolve some of the great differences that have always existed between his party and our own.

As a Liberal Prime Minister, it is my responsibility to my party — and to the millions of people who have once again invested us with their trust — to deliver truly liberal and conservative policies that we believe can improve the lives of all Australians.

But in seeking to work in partnership with Labor, we acknowledge that if we are to ask for something, we must give something in return, and for this reason one of the differences we intend to try to resolve is the eternal bickering over Health and Education, both between the Liberal Party and Labor, and between the Commonwealth and the states.

My people have developed proposals in these two critical areas that we believe can fix our healthcare systems and our schools, and it is on the basis of these we initially seek the co-operation of the ALP. It may be that nothing comes of those discussions, but we intend to try: and once we have discussed our ideas with the Labor leadership and provided we are satisfied there is scope to work together, we will make these plans public.

But more broadly, we want to try to reset the tone of debate: less abuse and fearmongering, and more productive outcomes.

We took a policy of tax cuts for business to the election; not because we wanted to give “handouts to millionaires,” as our opponents said, but because we genuinely believe that taking the burden off business is the best way to create jobs and growth.

Labor took a policy of abolishing negative gearing to the election; they said they believed this would increase housing affordability for young people, whereas we genuinely believe that such a policy could have catastrophic knock-on effects for the property industry, for rental affordability, for the value of the homes of ordinary mums and dads, and for the economy itself.

Where we differ, we should reach decisions on how to proceed through a battle of ideas, not abuse; by debate, not frightening people.

What I will say today is that we certainly shouldn’t lie to you: and speaking of the grand plot we supposedly had to privatise Medicare, I would simply say to Mr Shorten that you know it was never true, so let’s not hear another word about it.

Over the next three years, my government will be working to implement as much of the plan we took to the election as we can, and I acknowledge that with the numbers in Parliament being so tight it simply may not be possible to legislate all of it.

We know — from our members talking to people in their electorates, that there were some things we got wrong, and which in all likelihood contributed to the swing against us.

We will consult on controversial initiatives — such as our changes to superannuation tax concessions — and where we are satisfied improvements can be made, we will do so.

But with an eye to the future — and to the very real challenges we now face in Australia — we have a responsibility to fix the way we are doing things in certain areas if we are to leave behind a country that is great for our children and grandchildren; one where they can continue to enjoy the freedom and the way of life we cherish so dearly.

Putting aside the politics, I don’t think anyone really thinks we can continue to live beyond our means.

We now owe the rest of the world a half a trillion dollars — a figure growing by $50bn every year. The interest bill to service that debt is a billion dollars a month: money that could pay for schools, or hospitals, or infrastructure in regional centres, or a stronger safety net for those in our society who most desperately need it.

We are prepared to set aside the blame game — who did what, who started it, whose fault it is — and to work with our opponents to develop a solution to this problem that enables us to once again balance our budget and to begin to pay back some of that debt.

We have a rapidly ageing population that is already straining our health and welfare systems. We want to help older Australians, who have worked all their lives to make Australia a better and stronger society. But an ageing population throws up challenges: from the increased cost of looking after older Australians to the shortages of skills and labour their absence from the workforce creates.

We seek to explore, with Labor, ideas to overcome these challenges.

Mr Shorten and Labor have a choice: to work with us in genuine partnership to try to fix some of these problems, or to behave like opposition politicians and try to stop us from governing.

Either way, we are ready to act in good faith. There is a seat at the Cabinet table on offer if it is possible for us to work with our opponents, but whether we can or not I think it is critical that we make the overture if a difficult Parliament is to be made a success.

We understand you are not happy; we know this because of the swing against our government. We know because of the feedback our booth workers received on polling day. We know because of the record number of votes cast for independents and minor parties.

It is an article of faith in a democracy that the voters are always right, but it worries me that so many people have chosen to vote for parties and candidates who prey on what frightens or angers them, rather than for those who may smooth those fears and reservations, and it is our job to try to restore your trust in us as a party of government.

Over the next three years — beginning next week — there will be a small number of changes to my ministry; clearly, some of our ministers lost their seats at the election, and those vacancies will be used to promote new talent to the frontbench to ensure the government continues to renew itself and does not stagnate.

There may, as I alluded at the outset, also be a place for Ms Plibersek depending on the outcome of the discussions we seek urgently with members of the ALP leadership.

But during the three years of my government, our team will also be working on comprehensive policy ideas to continue the reform process. Further taxation reform. Further industrial relations reform. Ways to improve how our Parliament is elected to make it more representative and more responsive.

These — and other areas of reform — are always complex issues, and I understand many people can feel apprehensive and alienated in the face of change.

But it is my promise that any major reform will be laid out before the electorate, in detail: and then you will have the opportunity to vote on it at an election, with any of the changes we propose to take effect during the Parliament after this.

Fellow Australians, I truly believe the best days of our great country are in front of it; and I believe — to quote John Howard — that the things that unite us as Australians are more stronger and more enduring than the things that divide us.

I know you have heard me say it a lot lately, but there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian; our challenge now is to ensure that that always remains the case, and to ensure that the generations who follow us can be as excited — and as proud — about their country as I am to have the privilege to lead it.

Thank you very much.

 

This is obviously a parody, but if Malcolm Turnbull were to deliver this speech, upon formally claiming victory in the 2016 election, what sort of response do you think he would receive?

Oh, and a note to Liberal Party backroom people: if you’re interested in the reform ideas on Health, Education, or parliamentary reform that flesh out the rhetoric in this hypothetical victory speech, you know where I am. We don’t need to telegraph those today.

 

Credlin Controlling Coalition Campaign? It’s Worth A Thought

THE NOTION of controversial former Chief of Staff to Tony Abbott (and one-time Turnbull adviser) Peta Credlin running the Coalition election effort to instil discipline and consistency is not as ridiculous as it sounds; Malcolm Turnbull will have Credlin nowhere near his government, and usually, we would wholeheartedly agree: but the divisive former aide’s campaign skills will be sorely missed in a tight contest, where the risk of defeat is real.

This column — as regular readers know really, really, really well — evolved over the two years following the 2013 election into a staunchly implacable critic of the Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin; the operating methods of the government under his leadership were amateurish, counter-productive, and in terms of the Coalition’s public messages were almost invariably of more benefit to the ALP than they were to the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister, or to the voters who elected them to office in a landslide.

Indeed, it was Abbott’s refusal to redeploy or replace Credlin that led me to withdraw my decades-long support for Abbott as Liberal leader, although I was at pains to stipulate that this did not equate to an endorsement of Malcolm Turnbull.

Even so, we have always been careful to acknowledge the one strength (and triumph) that can never be taken from Ms Credlin: the welding of the Liberals into a cohesive, disciplined fighting unit that (mostly) remained focused and on message leading into and during the 2013 campaign; I have often opined that Credlin was an ideal spearhead for an opposition, or for an election effort, or both; the great shame is that it appears to have been one of those situations where what was brilliant in opposition did not translate to government: and refusing to exercise the foresight and perspective to recognise as much, Abbott and Credlin together paid the ultimate political price.

On this basis, it is difficult to argue with the sentiments expressed today by Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt, who argues Credlin (or someone like her) should be running Turnbull’s re-election campaign which, lamentably and to put it most kindly, is all over the shop.

As Bolt notes — and despite explicit and repeated threats to call a double dissolution election if his legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission was defeated — Turnbull couldn’t even confirm the poll would be held on 2 July as previously indicated, a state of confusion echoed by other senior Coalition figures from deputy Julie Bishop down.

Despite a reasonable suite of reforms to overhaul the corporate regulator, ASIC, and give it more teeth to act on real and/or alleged misdemeanours by Australian banks, the government seems unable to present a united position on whether the planned changes are sufficient or whether a Royal Commission into the banking sector should be held instead.

And instances of ridiculous Coalition disunity — such as the one cited by Bolt that featured Queensland backbencher Warren Entsch bragging about hanging up on Turnbull “in disgust” over his marginal electorate missing out on “a share” of a lucrative shipbuilding contract — are unforgivable, heading into a difficult campaign the government may struggle to prevail in.

Meanwhile, opposition “leader” Bill Shorten is being allowed to escape, scot-free and with no accountability applied to him by the government, as he works his way through a series of emptily populist ruses that he thinks may yield votes: hitting multinationals (which no Western country has successfully “hit” to date), hitting “rich” people’s superannuation, hitting the “rort” of negative gearing, hitting smokers, hitting “high” income earners — you name it.

Unwisely, but perhaps as a result of its own systematic slash-and-burn approach to potential reform options, the Coalition has too often danced to Labor’s tune rather than articulating its own vision — opening itself to the charge of having no ideas — and when it has presented its own ideas (read: income tax powers for the states) the result has been a big old mess.

And it has let Shorten get away with brazenly boasting about the $102bn in new taxes a Labor government would raise over the next decade, which Labor itself makes no effort to deny is earmarked solely for more lavish, wasteful spending programs, with no firm pledge to repay any of the half-trillion dollars either borrowed on its watch last time or embedded into legislation to force the Liberal Party to its will.

I’ve been calling this obscene intended tax slug what it is: a $400 raid per year, every year for ten years, on every man, woman and child living in Australia today.

Given half the population already subsists exclusively on one government payment or another, in reality this is more like double that amount for the rest of us: $16 each, each week for ten years, for a Labor government likelier than anything to finish the job of destroying Australia that its Rudd-Gilard-Rudd forbear started.

Can anyone seriously believe Mr Three-Word-Slogan — Mr Great Big New Tax — would be letting Shorten and his accomplices get away with such a brazen exercise in chasing power at literally any price?

More to the point, can anyone seriously believe that a Credlin type would be letting her Prime Minister vaccillate and ramble on the stump — with no consistency other than to be consistently fickle — for a second longer than the blunt conversation to “tell” him to stick to the script?

The Abbott forces — which, of course, include Credlin — are (understandably) believed to remain highly aggrieved and very bitter over their unceremonious dumping last September, a disproportionate share of the reasons for which emanated directly from Peta Credlin herself.

Yet even Abbott, in a column appearing in Sydney’ Daily Telegraph today, continues to show that whilst he may no longer be Prime Minister and may well be possessed of a mouthful of sour grapes, he remains more able than Turnbull to at least identify the key issues the government should be targeting — even if, on his own government’s watch, the communication and strategy apparatus at his disposal to prosecute them was useless.

Could there be a one-off, short-term role as a campaign strategy consultant for Credlin? It’s doubtful. Not only is she unwelcome in the engine room of the Turnbull government, but common sense suggests (with no slight to Ms Credlin’s sense of professionalism intended) that putting such an embittered and jaundiced individual anywhere near the drivers of the continuing administration would be too great a risk to justify it.

Just look at what Kevin Rudd and Shorten got up to as Cabinet ministers last time. The principle is identical.

But one of the glaring deficiencies in Turnbull’s — well, you could hardly call it a campaign strategy — is the ostensible absence of anyone who might haul the entire enterprise onto a far more professional (and not least, effective) footing.

In this sense, Bolt is dead right, and with electoral defeat a very real risk for Turnbull, the imperative to remedy this problem is beyond urgent. The fact the problem even exists at all is beyond belief.

If nothing is done, Turnbull and his acolytes will stumble, bumble, contradict and waffle their way all the way to 2 July. If this methodology indeed proves the route they traverse to get there, the humiliation of defeat will loom large.

Shorten is running all over the government with a message that is one half bull and the other half shit, to paraphrase a rather indelicate ditty from the 1980s.

The only people who can win this election for the Coalition are Turnbull and his colleagues. If they are serious, and if they want to win (which from outside the Canberra bubble is a devastatingly valid question), then it’s time to start to behave like it.

If that means providing a temporarily renewed lease on life for the adviser this column once characterised as the creature from beneath the septic tank, then so be it.

 

Double Dissolution: Why Turnbull Was Right To Confront The Senate

NOTWITHSTANDING signals from some polls — and some pundits, including myself — of a tight election that may yet see Labor triumph, an issue that will receive scant attention in this campaign is the role of the Senate, and the bluntly pro-Left battering ram it has become. The present Senate is not “democratic.” Electoral laws that allow its abuse by the Left have been axed. Win or lose, Mr Turnbull has rightly bleached a stain on Australian democracy.

There is a scenario doing the rounds in the mainstream commentariat this week — not without reason, I might add — that having invested so heavily in engineering a double dissolution and having so emphatically framed it as a battle to eradicate lawlessness in the construction industry, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull could win a narrow majority in the House of Representatives that is insufficient to overhaul its minority in the Senate, making it impossible to muster the numbers to pass bills at a Joint Sitting of Parliament: rendering the disputed bills, and the entire pretext for a double dissolution, redundant.

It would amount to a humiliation that, were this nightmare scenario to materialise, would justify (if not demand) Turnbull’s resignation.

Yet the truth is that most voters — generally uninterested in politics and often resentful at being forced to pay it any attention at all — won’t even consider the context of a double dissolution election even this closely, let alone delve deeper into the issues that have led to Parliament mostly being an unproductive quagmire for the past three years.

I have been reading an article by Paul Kelly in The Australian this morning, and given we’re embarking on an election campaign of unprecedented duration, I thought it might be an opportunity to revisit the fraught issue of the Senate; the double dissolution itself is only half the story, for this election will take place under amended electoral laws that dispense with group ticket voting (GTV) that relies on preference deals determined in advance by parties and independent candidates, and allows for the first time voters to optionally allocate their own preferences to control where their votes are ultimately directed.

Back in the early 1990s, I was a very hotheaded member of the (sizeable) contingent who found it outrageous that then-PM Paul Keating should dare to describe the Senate as “unrepresentative swill;” of course, the subsequent years have shown Keating was absolutely correct, and the chief role of the Senate seems to have evolved over the ensuing 20-odd years to amount to little more today than a battering ram to bludgeon and seek to destroy a conservative government by making it impossible for it to govern.

Before any of our friends on the Left who read my stuff start protesting, I should restate my long-held belief that a government elected to power with a majority in the lower house should generally be entitled, in ordinary circumstances, to be able to govern for three years at a time and to secure the passage of its legislation; there is no codified status as a “house of review” ascribed to the Senate in the Constitution, for the true role of the upper house — long since usurped by the two-party system — is as a States’ House.

It goes without saying, of course, that no political party will ever legislate to force the Senate to act purely on the basis of state interests, for to do so would be to necessarily remove the presence of political parties from the Senate altogether. It ain’t going to happen, and so the next best thing is to ensure that without creating an automatic rubber stamp, the composition of the Senate broadly reflects the wishes of the Australian public as expressed by their preference for a government at the ballot box.

In this sense, it should also be noted that there is no right to seats in Parliament for micro-parties, Independents or selected minorities embedded in the Constitution either: and those who wheel this fatuous argument out to decry “authoritarian” Senate reforms that “diminish diversity” need to get a handle on both themselves and the fact that elections are chiefly concerned with choosing governments — not with the execution of left-wing social policy.

That comes later, if indeed it must.

Kelly tells the story today (that we have sporadically touched upon here) of the bills to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission: taken to the people as a promise by the Tony Abbott-led Liberals in 2013, the Coalition’s mandate on this issue was flatly ignored by a Senate bent on trying to destroy the government as much as with safeguarding the unregulated environment in which unions presently operate.

He tells the story of the Heydon Royal Commission into the union movement — another promise taken to the electorate in 2013 by Abbott — and the reprehensible lengths the Senate, stewarded by Labor’s Penny Wong and abetted by the Greens and a large contingent of the crossbench, went to in trying to have the Inquiry shut down and/or Heydon’s position terminated: including the improper and undemocratic attempt to politicise the office of the Governor-General in seeking to have Sir Peter intervene in a breach of both protocol and convention.

The attempt also shattered forever Labor’s long-held position that the Governor-General “takes advice from his Prime Minister and from no-one else” — invalidating, at a stroke, 40 years of bitching and complaining about the legal and perfectly proper actions of Sir John Kerr in dismissing the Whitlam government over a parliamentary deadlock in 1975.

He makes the point, implicitly, that Labor’s actions betray its utter enslavement to the agenda and interests of the union movement, be they democratic or otherwise: I don’t think it’s an unreasonable inference to suggest that even if allegations of heinous crimes such as rapes and murders and the like had emerged from the Heydon Commission (which they didn’t, just to be clear) then the ALP would still have acted as an apologist hand puppet for its union masters and assisted their endeavours to evade enforcement of the law.

And he correctly asserts that the antics of the Senate over the past three years — blocking, for example (and this is an old story) virtually every Coalition measure to rein in expenditure whilst allowing anything that increased spending to pass, in a brazen enterprise to perpetuate the vandalism and sabotage Labor deliberately wrought on the federal budget once it knew it was returning to opposition — belie a realignment of power between the Senate and the House of Representatives, with the former strengthened in relative terms against the upper.

The structure of the Senate and the system used to elect it, as regular readers well know, has long been a particular bugbear of mine; we have discussed these matters often over the past five years, and newer readers can peruse a small selection of historic material here, here and here: some of which touches directly on the matters at hand this morning.

The great villain in the piece — and which has enabled the Senate to evolve into the shameful stain on Australian democracy that its current incarnation represents — was the suite of reforms introduced by the Hawke government in 1984 (with the foolish support of the National Party guaranteeing their passage) which enlarged both Houses of Parliament, introduced the now-familiar options for voting above or below the line, and which established the GTV scourge that has in recent years spawned the phenomenon of “preference harvesting” or “preference whispering” and ultimately led to the cesspool the upper house is today.

To be fair, the House of Representatives needed to be enlarged in 1984, having remained relatively unchanged in size for almost 40 years whilst the Australian population exploded, and it needs to be enlarged again now; after the 1984 charges, a lower house MP was responsible for the service of roughly 60,000 electors; today, thanks to population growth, each MP is responsible to almost double that number. The 125-seat House that grew to 150 in 1984 should really now be expanded to 180 seats. In 20 or 30 years’ time, it will need to be enlarged again.

But the Constitution (and specifically, S24 of it) mandates that “as nearly as practicable” the House of Representatives should be composed of double the number of Senators — the so-called “constitutional nexus” — which means that to enlarge the lower house is to also enlarge to upper, cutting the required quota of votes under the proportional system used to win election to the Senate, and perpetuating the dysfunction that has marked the upper house for too long in recent times.

A kind view says that the 1984 changes could retrospectively be seen as having had the unintended effect of creating the mess the Senate has become.

But Labor — whose fury over what happened in 1975 has dimmed, but will never really diminish — was hellbent on seeing to it that such a fate could never again befall a government it formed, and I have always believed the splintering effect upon the ability of major parties to win Senate majorities that has flowed from those changes was deliberate.

Yes, the Howard government won a Senate majority for its last term in office; this was an anomaly, not a readily replicated precedent.

But for the past 40 years, the splinter parties that have emerged in Australian politics have mostly sprung up on the Left — the Greens especially — and by lowering the bar to parliamentary entry, the likelihood was always that unless the Coalition could corral close to 50% of the upper house primary vote at consecutive elections it could never achieve a majority there, whilst the proliferation of new left-leaning entrants to the Senate offered the ALP the eventual prospect of control of the Senate (in partnership with some of these minor entities) whether it held office or not.

And that is precisely where the Senate result in 2013 — added to the Senate results in the states from 2010 — sees us today.

The long and the short of all of this — until Turnbull’s legislation to overhaul Senate elections was passed — is that the upper house has morphed into an institution likely to deliver effective control of the Senate (with the Greens) to any Labor government formed in the lower house, whilst providing the muscle to block anything introduced by a government formed by the conservative parties.

This power has been repeatedly abused over the past three years, although the tactical and strategic ineptitude of the Abbott government’s “brains” trust meant that it was never exploited and turned to the Coalition’s advantage: instead, every defeat inflicted on the government simply emboldened the Senate, rather than spurring the Coalition to a public discussion of the role of the Senate to turn opinion in its favour, quickly engineering a pile of double dissolution triggers to give itself recourse against the upper house, and setting the crossbench up for an electoral mauling when it next faced voters.

You can’t say the government has demolished the standing of the crossbench even now: still behaving as laws unto themselves and spared any meaningful scrutiny in a huge portion of the media, most of its members are openly campaigning for the protection of their well-remunerated sinecures with a near-total disregard for the national interest.

And in my view, the only surprise to emanate from the Senate since the ALP lost power three years ago is that it didn’t try to force an election by blocking one of the Abbott government’s budgets. It astounds me that no attempt was made to do so. But it is the only mechanism for attempting to destroy an elected government through sheer bloody-mindedness that it hasn’t tried.

At the very minimum, the nexus of S24 must be broken, so the House can be enlarged without the need to bloat the Senate any further: the change will require a referendum, and it will require wiser heads than presently reside in Canberra to make the public case for it. In any case, the promise to freeze the size of the Senate at 76 members (or to cut it back to the 64 that applied before 1984) would go a long way to winning public favour. Australians don’t like politicians. Promising to limit increases in the number of them, or even to cut the number of them, are likely to be well received.

It is a great shame that so few will give a second thought to these issues, as Australia’s date with the polling stations on 2 July approaches; paradoxically, the voting public that may yet react against the Coalition over perceptions of chaos, the inability to pass its legislation and the sense the government “owns” the embarrassment the Senate has been will probably give little or no consideration to the fact Turnbull has had the bottle to finally push through changes that should sound the death knell for the kind of shenanigans the Senate has chosen to engage in.

But the bigger issue is what we actually elect MPs for: it might be legal to stonewall, to defeat, and to seek to destroy a government by rendering the Senate so uncontrollable as to sabotage that government, but it isn’t right.

Yes, Lefties, I know what you’re going to say; how can I suggest such a thing when I’m an ardent supporter of what happened in 1975? But two wrongs do not make a right, and in any case there was a real crisis of governance in the latter stages of the Whitlam government: the country was in chaos, and the Whitlam government had descended into little more than an unending string of ministerial scandals. Labor’s (and the Greens’) beef with the Abbott government boiled down to no more than a dislike of his government’s agenda. They were entitled to take such a view, of course. But their charge against Abbott paled in comparison to the track record of Whitlam and his cohorts.

Either way, events some 40 years ago do not justify the Senate being turned into a blatant battering ram or blunt object for the exclusive political benefit of the ALP and the Greens.

Nobody owns the Senate, although for the past six years, it has been held in an iron grasp by the forces of the Left: and their number — aided by left-leaning micro-parties and Independents, whose election was only possible due to a self-interested fix by the ALP 30 years ago — has grown to the point that it had become virtually impossible to remove the Left’s control of the chamber at an election once the preference games that GTV made possible had been initiated.

And it should be noted that Turnbull — even in an (unlikely) thumping victory in July — stands little chance of winning a Senate majority. That isn’t the point.

With a quota for a Senate place now much more likely to amount to exactly that in practice — and to hell with “diversity” arguments to justify Senators winning spots with half a percentage point of the vote — the result of the coming election will more closely (but of course, not precisely) reflect the broad wishes of a majority of the electorate, and that is just how it should be.

Whether you plan to vote Liberal, Labor or for someone else — and irrespective of what you think of Malcolm Turnbull personally — he deserves credit for the changes that have been legislated, and the contribution to improving outcomes of governance in this country that will flow from them will be an enduring one.

 

Election 2016: As The Curtain Rises, Turnbull Gamble May Backfire

THE SENATE — in defeating legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission for a second time — has handed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the pretext he sought on which to call elections for both Houses of Parliament; obliged by explicit public threats to take the matter to the people if the Senate voted it down, Turnbull is locked into a 2 July double dissolution. The campaign begins now. The election is Labor’s to lose.

And so it begins: on the first day of a three-week “special sitting” of Parliament to canvass, among other things, bills to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission — an Abbott government promise that received an electoral mandate in 2013 — the Senate has obliged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in record order, voting the ABCC legislation down last night and handing Turnbull the double dissolution trigger he sought in so doing.

Today’s article is really only intended to give form to some reflections on the contest that now begins; an election campaign that is effectively more than 10 weeks in length — and an actual campaign period that will still exceed seven weeks once formalised on 10 or 11 May — is an Australian record, and most voters will be heartily fed up with politics by the time the polls close on 2 July.

Leaving aside who did what, to whom it was done, or judgements about the validity or otherwise of the sequence of events that brings us to this point, the brutal truth is that the Liberal Party has spent its first term in office behaving in precisely the fashion Labor did between 2007 and 2013, which it has repeatedly protested it would never do.

A leader led the Coalition back into office at an election after multiple terms in opposition; for a short period, the government fared well and was popular, before an event caused its poll ratings to collapse: and his colleagues, panicked that the party would lose an election (or that more particularly, that some of them would lose their seats) effected a surgical and vicious snap coup to replace their Prime Minister with a man opinion polls suggested was far more likely to resonate with voters: and to win a second term.

Sound familiar? It should. Replace the word “Coalition” with “Labor” and extend the happy phase of government from three to 18 months, and you have the same storyline followed by the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government.

Like Julia Gillard in 2010, Malcolm Turnbull enters his first (and perhaps only) election campaign as leader with blood on his hands.

Turnbull came to the Prime Ministership far more popular than Gillard could ever have dreamed of being, but this esteem quickly proved illusory and transient: both Prime Ministers are and were deeply defective, albeit in different ways. Gillard’s political limitations quickly hobbled her government. Turnbull’s were on full display during a disastrous 14 months as Liberal leader in 2008-09. Both quickly squandered the initial goodwill voters were inclined to bestow upon them despite the grimy manner in which each ascended the greasy pole.

Gillard erred in rushing to an election a month after knifing Kevin Rudd; Turnbull has erred by waiting more than six months to go to the polls.

And whilst the Gillard campaign was a disaster — and seemed set to end stonily in defeat, with many crediting her notorious promise not to introduce a carbon tax (in response to an Abbott scare campaign) as the difference between salvaging enough seats to cobble together government from a technical loss or losing outright — it is here the parallels diverge, for now at least: the Turnbull campaign sits at the foot of the runway, and faces a three-week wait in the form of the remainder of the special sitting before it is really clear for take-off; nobody knows whether Abbott will play the subterranean wrecking role Rudd did in 2010, for example, or whether some Cassandra of the Liberal Party will seek to publicly humiliate Turnbull in the way Mark Latham did to Gillard three years ago.

This election is Labor’s to lose — unbelievably, after the tumultuous and unruly spectacle it indulged itself in before voters in office, and despite the reprehensible damage it inflicted on the structural integrity of Australia’s previously sound financial situation — for no better reason than the fact that in spite of the vapid, vacuous and often ridiculous drivel it has served up from opposition as “policy,” the message of “leader” Bill Shorten has been consistent.

Nobody can say that of Turnbull.

The Coalition starts this campaign with 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives; Labor has 55, the Communist Party Greens one, and there are four “Others:” of the four, one (Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast) is a certain gain for the government, but beyond that, it is difficult at the outset to see Turnbull winning any new seats in any state or territory. Less than six months ago, there was a sound case to suggest it could take up to an extra dozen seats from Labor, all but wiping the ALP out in WA and Queensland in the process.

A uniform swing of exactly 4% would deliver the 21 seats Labor needs to secure a bare outright majority — and government — in the House of Representatives.

I don’t propose to spend much time discussing the Senate this morning; there will be ample time for that as the campaign progresses, and in any case my remarks today are meant only as a curtain-raiser to what will be a gruelling (and possibly quite nasty) campaign.

But with the reduced Senate quotas that apply at a double dissolution and considering the same foolish delay in calling an election that will cost Turnbull lower house seats, I can see the government winning five Senate spots in every state, plus one in each of the territories, and a sixth spot in WA and possibly — possibly — NSW and Queensland. This makes the best-possible return for the Coalition 35 of the 76 Senate spots: two more than it currently holds. Had this double dissolution been held in December like it should have been, six Senators in WA, NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria were all realistic propositions, and we would be talking about the possibility of 37 Coalition Senators and a far stronger position in the upper house than the advance by one to two spots that seems the government’s best hope now.

I am told Coalition strategists outside Canberra are increasingly pessimistic about the government’s prospects, and so they should be: for on its merits, the Coalition does not deserve to be re-elected, and the only thing it has going for it in terms of electoral appeal is that none of its MPs are Bill Shorten.

The government which — under two very different leaders — has proven singularly unable to deliver politically palatable policies, sell anything to a sceptical electorate, deal with a hostile Senate in any meaningful sense until the horse of public opinion had bolted (and changes to the way the Senate is elected, whilst crucial, appear in the eyes of the public as panicked self-interest) or to execute strategic and tactical manoeuvres in a manner that establishes and maintains ascendancy over its opponent is a government that staggers to its first re-election hurdle when it should be ready to jump.

This government has enjoyed not one, but two opportunities to capitalise on a deep reservoir of voter goodwill, and has managed to squander both; the orthodox wisdom is that the Coalition will be re-elected, for no other reason than “everyone gets two chances,” although that myth was exploded in stunning fashion last year by the LNP state government in Queensland.

None of this, of course, is to say that Labor represents the better proposition at this election — it doesn’t — or even that it deserves to win at all, which it certainly doesn’t.

As promised, over the next few days I will be publishing a piece discussing what I believe has been Labor’s “grand strategy” during this parliamentary term, and why simply sticking to the script has placed the ALP in a position to potentially win an election at which it should have no right to even contemplate victory.

The ALP has spent its term in opposition advocating “policies” that are little more than a sop to the Greens and the hard Left, with promises of multiple carbon taxes and 50% renewable energy targets that would decimate Australia economically and push the cost of living for ordinary folk through the roof.

Its only promises worthy of belief are those that threaten $102bn in new taxes on Australians over the next ten years: $400 per year for every man, woman and child living in this country today, every year for ten years.

It has obstinately refused to acknowledge its mistakes in government, or to apologise for the debt abyss into which the country’s affairs threaten to disappear, or even to show more than scant regard for the millions of ordinary voters who can’t be bribed with promises of endless welfare beyond vapid slogans based on assertions the Coalition would destroy healthcare, education and the welfare system generally if it’s re-elected.

At times, the shrill pronouncements of Shorten on labour market policy have bordered on the suggestion Australian workers will return to slave conditions under a re-elected Coalition government: the message from the opposition has been that crass.

And Shorten — a lying and conspiratorial union thug with the morals of an alley cat on heat and a cavalier disregard for anything and anyone other than himself, the exercise of power and his union buddies in that order — is hardly a suitable candidate for the Prime Ministership on any criteria grounded in principle, decency, or on a reasonable assessment of his likely performance if elevated to the office.

But Shorten has weathered multiple personal scandals that could (and probably should) have destroyed his “leadership;” he was perhaps fortunate to be untouched by the Royal Commission into the trade union movement, although he sustained considerable short-term collateral damage when its damning findings were released; and whilst he is just as reviled personally by the electorate as he saw to it Tony Abbott became, if the polls are any guide, the fact is that Shorten remains vertical: in the contest, hungry, and determined to win by any and all means possible.

By contrast, the misguided loyalties and misdirected energies of the Abbott era have given way to the dithering, tentative indecision of Turnbull; the Prime Minister’s stellar opinion poll bounce has evaporated, as this column repeatedly and correctly predicted, and despite a change in the guard in the government’s back of house, the government has remained poorly advised, appeared flat-footed, and Turnbull himself enters the campaign his own handiwork obliges him to embark on as the unpopular leader of a government that is sinking, and gives every appearance of a sense of entitlement to be re-elected, if not simply of a lame duck.

The point is that in a contest between two sides that have both exhibited division, unrest and disunity, I believe such circumstances favour the challenger: it isn’t through any sense of wild enthusiasm (or any enthusiasm for him at all) that Shorten finds himself in such a position. But the sentiment in voterland that “the other lot” can’t be any worse is exactly the millstone Turnbull has allowed to be slung around his, and his government’s, collective necks.

Without a hint of irony and in deadly seriousness, I believe the consequences of a Labor government — and especially one “led” by the insidious Shorten — would be so dire that I would give thought to emigrating were this nightmare scenario to materialise: I don’t think I could stand to watch Australia ravaged by yet another Labor outfit vying with its predecessors for the mantle of the worst government in its history, and a defiant refusal to have such a government adversely impact me personally would make the one-fingered salute relocation to the UK would constitute a worthy message to send to Canberra.

And those staunchly pro-Abbott members of the Liberal Party who think a Labor government — and a Shorten government, no less — is preferable to one headed by Turnbull had better wake up to themselves, and quickly.

Malcolm won’t be around forever; if he loses he will leave Parliament immediately; and if he wins narrowly, the chances of a mid-term replacement are high. There will be no landslide Coalition win this year. And even if there was, Malcolm will be 62 in October: in 2007, voters showed all too decisively what they thought of re-electing a 68-year-old, and Turnbull isn’t one-tenth the leader John Howard was. His time is going to be relatively short, however things play out. The relatively small but viciously fanatical rump demanding “(their) elected Prime Minister back” could pointlessly inflict great harm on the country by preferencing the ALP above the Coalition.

Yet when all is considered — at the outset of a campaign so long that literally anything could happen — the bottom line is this.

Were the election set for this Saturday, Labor would have to be favoured to win by a nose; this election is Shorten’s to lose, and whilst the benefits of incumbency and tools like the imminent federal budget are in Turnbull’s hands, he has shown to date a near-total inability to exploit such advantages.

Turnbull’s trajectory — for almost six months — has been steadily downwards; it is taking the government with it, and the danger of defeat now looms large.

At the start of the campaign — and whilst I will personally take no steps to help facilitate a change of government — I would find it difficult to publish an endorsement for either side were polling day scheduled for this weekend rather than 2 July.

It promises to be a pretty uninspiring period in what should be the pinnacle of Australia’s political cycle: insipid indecision and nothing to get excited about versus blatant opportunism, a naked lust for power at literally any cost, and a sackful of big sticks to hit people with if the insidious enterprise pays off.

What a choice.

But momentum at the outset is with the opposition, and it would be dishonest to try to suggest otherwise.

Time will tell whether this alarming state of affairs is remedied over the next ten weeks, but whether it is or whether it isn’t, Malcolm Turnbull will be responsible for it — either way.

 

Ipsos, Newspoll: Turnbull Election Loss A Distinct Possibility

MUCH AS IT PAINS some in the “brains” trust of the Liberal Party, this column calls political life as it sees it, and is uninterested in rah-rah propaganda for its own sake; today, with new polls from Ipsos and Newspoll, the trend we’ve been charting — a collapse in the Turnbull government’s standing — persists, with those figures (and some gut instinct) suggesting the Coalition, whilst not yet dead in the water, may nonetheless just about be cooked.

Exactly eight months after the Queensland LNP won a state election — ending 14 years of ALP government in the biggest landslide in Australian political history — I raised in this column the prospect, despite the 12.2% swing required, that it would lose the following election in 2015: and despite the torrent of abuse that poured through my phone in the days immediately afterward, along with a steady dripfeed of stories filtering south about what a fuckwit I was, on 31 January last year the LNP did precisely as I had predicted. It lost a state election.

The problem in commenting on (and making predictions about) a business as infinitely changeable and subject to wildcat acts of treachery as politics is that inevitably, some calls will be right and some will be wrong; we’ve nailed far more than we’ve missed here over the past five years, and if some in my own party resent the fact I make tough calls on the Liberals as much as on our opponents, then so be it. After all, I’ve been excluded from the inner sanctum; it’s a bit rich to then complain that I don’t regurgitate what’s on the song sheet. You can’t have it both ways.

Regular readers will know that I wrote the Abbott government off as terminal not too long after its politically disastrous 2014 budget; had it been implemented (and the merits or otherwise of the Senate’s behaviour notwithstanding) it would have gone some way to redressing the balance sheet, but not as far as required. In any case, then-Treasurer Joe Hockey had produced a politically incendiary package that targeted swinging Coalition voters in marginal seats, and backed by a thoroughly dysfunctional political machine in almost every conceivable sense, was unsaleable.

And whilst flatly opposed to the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull (and having said so repeatedly up to and including the day before he became Prime Minister) I was nevertheless emphatic that if he went to a pre-Christmas election last year, the Coalition would translate a quick sugar hit in public support into a sizeable election victory…but that the longer Turnbull delayed, the more support he would lose, the more his unreconstructed failings from his first stint as Liberal leader would resurface, and the likelier it would grow that the government would be defeated.

Two days before he rolled Tony Abbott, I published an article that comprehensively set out my reservations about (and my opposition to) a Turnbull Prime Ministership, and having looked it out to link into today’s piece, the arguments against Turnbull back in September look positively prophetic.

My reason for opening with this coverage of old ground (and a little self-defence) is that I think the federal Coalition is wandering very close to the point now at which its election prospects will become terminal: just as they were terminal under Abbott, a temporary reprieve from which was (ironically) delivered by the Turnbull coup, they are becoming so again as all the risks and flaws I warned about (as did other conservative commentators across the country) spring sharply back into focus.

In short, a Turnbull election loss is now a distinct possibility; some would argue it is probable. We will come back to that in a bit.

But it is against this backdrop that two new polls surface this morning — Newspoll in The Australian and the Fairfax-Ipsos poll — and whilst they show the government remaining competitive (on 49% and 50% of the two-party vote respectively), the bottom line is that if replicated at an election, the Coalition would probably lose narrowly. Across the basket of reputable polls we monitor in this column, the average two-party figure for the Coalition remains locked below 49.5%: leaving it dependent on enough votes in a tiny handful of key seats to fall across the line.

First things first: readers can access the Newspoll tables and the Fairfax press’ coverage of the Ipsos poll here and here respectively; I’m only going to allude to the findings rather than replicate them in full, so if the details are of interest please feel free to click through.

There are some really dangerous (or downright stupid) assumptions being made that find wide acceptance as common wisdom as to why Turnbull can’t lose, and before we get to talking about issues, or — again — the unforgivable drift and dithering of Turnbull’s government, I want to explode a few of them.

  1. Labor’s primary vote is too low to win an election

At 33% in Ipsos and 36% in Newspoll, in ordinary circumstances it should be too low to win; Essential (for what it’s worth) has seen it fluctuate between 35% and 38% over the past month, and my own “guesstimate” of the trend figure puts it at about 35.5%.

Yet with the Greens averaging 12% across all polls and the ALP guaranteed of 75-80% of these votes through preference flows, this lifts the “underlying” Labor position to 45%: from there, and with “Others” averaging 11% across all polls, the ALP need only attract 45% of those preferences to reach the 50% mark. As it usually scores 50-55% of these votes on preferences, the contention Labor can’t win with 35.5% of the vote on its own (if that proves the eventual figure at the ballot box) is simply untrue.

2. Malcolm Turnbull is the Coalition’s secret weapon

To achieve what, exactly? Ipsos is kinder to Turnbull than Newspoll, but the trend downwards is identical; even so, Newspoll — which is generally the most accurate survey of federal voting intention — shows Turnbull is not popular at all, with just 36% of its respondents (down another 2% in a fortnight) approving his performance, and 49% (+1%) disapproving. And in case anyone quibbles about margin of error, the resulting net approval score of -13% is a full 51-point turnaround in just five months: hardly the stuff of statistical blips.

Both of today’s polls show Turnbull with handy, but unconvincing, leads over Shorten as “preferred Prime Minister,” but in both cases those leads are diminished: Newspoll has it 47-28, whilst Ipsos (again kinder to Turnbull, but consistent with Newspoll on trend) finds it 54-27. It is rare for opposition leaders to win this measure, especially against first-term governments. That Shorten did so intermittently against Abbott speaks to the dysfunctional nature of Abbott’s political apparatus more than anything. Shorten’s numbers against Turnbull may be poorer, but they are not extraordinary in cyclical terms. Importantly for Labor, they represent a sharp upswing from their nadir prior to Christmas.

3. Bill Shorten is unelectable

Generally, I agree. Certainly, in my view, he is the least suitable candidate put forward for the Prime Ministership by any major party in decades, if not ever, although I’m not going to rehash those arguments today: there’s a wealth of articles dealing with Shorten and what should be his terminal defects readily accessible in the archives to the right.

But if we’re going to talk about “unelectable,” the Left spent three years screaming the same accusation against Abbott, going out of its way to smear and defame him to substantiate their charge. Nevertheless, Abbott won a thumping victory in 2013.

And if being “unelectable” is a bar to election victory, let’s consider a few other names. Steve Bracks. Bob Carr. Colin Barnett. Paul Keating. Jim Soorley. People forget that John Howard was “Mr 18%” and widely regarded (and lampooned) in the late 1980s as joke, or that Jeff Kennett lost two state elections (and, temporarily, his leadership of the Liberal Party) before storming to office in Victoria in 1992 and becoming a political titan. Admittedly, none of these men were as abjectly contemptible as Shorten.

Yet stranger things have happened.

4. Labor has no policies and is unfit to govern

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them: and Shorten knows this all too well.

As I argued last week, Labor’s program boils down to two words — new taxes — and a lot of new taxes at that: some $102 billion of them over ten years.

And it’s certainly true that the last Labor government committed unprecedented acts of economic vandalism on the federal budget, compounding this by its antics in opposition in marshalling obstruction to virtually every attempt to undo the damage in the Senate.

The country can’t afford another Labor government if it behaves as the last one did, obsessed with power to the exclusion of responsibility, and obsessed with socialist frolics and the empowerment of union thugs to the total exclusion of the national interest.

But — and this is a sad reality — the Coalition doesn’t exactly ooze policies either; three months of dithering, obfuscating and inaction over tax and budget policy means that a budget in 15 days’ time is going to have to produce a rabbit from a hat.

And the Liberal Party — through its knifing of Abbott, the mediocrity the Turnbull regime has proven to be, and the malicious preselection battles being fought out to knife conservatives in order to shore Turnbull’s position up — has gone out of its way to demonstrate that “unfitness for office” is not an epithet that applies exclusively to the opposition.

 

I must apologise to readers for my silence once again since my article on Thursday; that piece — written whilst sitting on the tarmac at Melbourne Airport in an A320 for 90 minutes, waiting for my delayed flight to Brisbane to get underway — provides a glimmer of insight into what awaits Australia if, God forbid, Shorten should be Prime Minister when we all wake up on 3 July.

I have in fact been preoccupied with other matters, and I have always made it plain that as this column is not a revenue-generating activity, other things that pay my bills must take precedence.

Time and other political events permitting, I will be publishing something during the week about Labor’s “grand strategy” during this term of Parliament, for I believe this has become increasingly clear over the past few months: and right now, one would have to say that it’s working.

Certainly, Labor’s political agenda — as fatuous and vacuous as it often is — is proving more fruitful at this point in the cycle than the Coalition’s, although as someone disinclined to buy into rah-rah propaganda and other self-congratulatory bullshit, I’ve long thought the defects in the way the Liberal Party has approached political strategy since roughly the midpoint of the final term of the Howard government have been obvious, although not as obvious to some as they should be, clearly.

Right now — after wasting a huge surge of electoral support, botching a series of ministerial appointments, eschewing hard conversations about the financial state Australia is really in and vacillating over what to do about it through tax reform — I think the Turnbull government is very, very close to the point its electoral position will become terminal.

It might not be showing up quite so starkly in the polls — yet — but since Christmas, every opinion poll in the country has contained at least one item of bad news for the government, if not several.

The Coalition’s primary vote is already down to the level at which Howard lost government in 2007; Labor support might be lower, but it has the Greens to guarantee it another 8-10% through preferences, which the Coalition does not.

Turnbull, personally, is every bit as unpopular as he was when booted from the Liberal leadership in 2009; he is little more popular than Shorten now, and faced with an opponent as cringeworthy and lamentable as Shorten is, that fact is an indictment.

Even Turnbull’s “preferred PM” numbers — the last sanctuary of the unpopular leader of an unpopular government — are drifting further and further downwards, and anyone who stakes the government’s re-election on a bet based on this particular index is delusional.

Today’s polls merely reinforce these observations.

The Coalition might not quite be dead in the water, but it has spent the year to date apparently determined to flirt with its political mortality, and to experiment with just how much water must be inhaled to induce drowning: its inability to make decisions, articulate policy or to sell its position convincingly is almost politically suicidal this close to a 2 July election its own handiwork has effectively locked it into.

Competitive as an averaged 49.4% across the full gamut of polls might appear on the two-party measure ten weeks from an election, the bigger question is whether the government is already cooked even if it isn’t running dead.

One of its signature tactical moves — a special sitting of Parliament, with plenty of inherent capacity to explode in Turnbull’s face — commences today, and concludes with an early budget on 3 May that possesses as much or more explosive potential.

In the next few weeks things will grow clearer, but for now — if you are wont to bet and looking for tips — I’m reticent to put my standard wager of a tenner on the Coalition just yet.

Oh, and for those who beg to differ, if Tony Abbott and his Prime Minister, Peta Credlin, were still leading the government today, it would be careening downhill toward certain defeat. Its policies may continue, but its political smarts in office were non-existent. On the latter point, Abbott and Turnbull might have more in common than they care to admit.

 

Queensland: A 14 May State Election Is Worth Betting On

WHILST NOTHING is certain in an infinitely changeable political world, a smart bet (for those wont to wager) is that Queensland will go to a state election on 14 May; facing an LNP led by a moribund failure and which ought to be a mile ahead in the polls, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk could inflict a potentially lethal blow to the Coalition at any double dissolution election announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — as seems certain — for 2 July.

I do apologise to readers for my sudden silence this week; once again I have found myself otherwise preoccupied, and for once I also downed tools completely for a day or two. I am cognisant that we have things to talk about, and I will come back to some of the week’s issues over the next few days.

But I’m starting to think that the swirling clouds gathered over Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s head could shortly be turned to immediate (and possibly deadly) advantage by the ALP; racked by the instability of a fractious hung Parliament to the point she could engineer a blow-up substantial enough to justify an election at just an hour or so’s notice, Palaszczuk is “blessed” by perhaps the most fortuitous circumstances she is likely to confront for the balance of the three-year term her government is nominally serving, and will reap little benefit from any delay in the hope of better weather.

And ironically, the (deserved) belting the ALP suffered in council elections in Brisbane a week ago arguably strengthens the case for Palaszczuk to go to the polls as soon as possible.

With its announcement early in the week that not only will the Senate be recalled early on 18 April to debate stalled legislation the Coalition nonetheless (probably) wants rejected to give it the trigger for an anti-union election campaign, but that the federal budget will also be brought forward by a week to 3 May — enabling both opposition “leader” Bill Shorten to formally reply and the passage of a temporary supply bill to cover an election period before the budget itself is passed — the Turnbull government has all but locked itself into a double dissolution election to be held on 2 July; these things are not absolutes, of course, and the path to the “September or October” election publicly spruiked for so long by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remains technically feasible.

But I think the only possible variant on a 2 July double dissolution is to hold it a week or a fortnight later, and even then, the formal campaign for it would run to nine or ten weeks; as I have opined in this column many times, I also believe that the longer Turnbull leaves his re-election attempt, the harder it will grow to secure victory: and in the past few days, the bickering and apparent estrangement between the PM and Treasurer Scott Morrison merely add an additional layer of validation to my judgement.

So, barring some unforeseen event from well beyond the horizon, 2 July it is for a double dissolution: and that means an election to be called, for legislative and Constitutional reasons, on 11 May.

I think the Queensland ALP would win an early election, and win it with at least 50 seats in the 89-member unicameral Queensland Parliament; it is for this reason I think a 14 May state election would be such a prudent enterprise for Palaszczuk to consider, as any Labor victory — even by less than the margin I’ve indicated — would puncture Turnbull’s momentum right from the outset and, depending on the degree of (guaranteed) recriminations that subsequently erupt within the Queensland LNP, perhaps derail his campaign altogether.

Last Saturday, Labor went very close to suffering a wipeout in a city that for decades had been its citadel; for 24 years prior to the election of Sallyanne Atkinson in 1985, the ALP ruled City Hall with an iron fist, a phenomenon reprised with the election of Jim Soorley as Lord Mayor in 1991 until his successor was dislodged by Campbell Newman 13 years later.

The disconnect between civic and state results in Brisbane has occurred regularly; in 1976 — two years after state Labor was annihilated, and less than a year after the election of the Fraser government all but destroyed Labor in Queensland — the ALP reduced the Liberal Party to a single ward on Council; in 2015, it reclaimed state government (and 24 Brisbane electorates) on a massive double-digit swing despite going down to the LNP in elections for the Brisbane City Council in 2012 and last week that were both major humiliations.

And it should be remembered that Atkinson’s thumping Council win in 1988 (17 wards to Labor’s 9, and 66% of the two-party vote for the mayoralty) was bookended by paltry returns for the Liberals at state elections in Brisbane of nine and five seats respectively in 1986 and 1989.

So let’s hear no more of the theory that Quirk’s latest landslide automatically spells trouble for Palaszczuk in Brisbane: it might, as I said last week, but unless the LNP does something to avert it, it probably won’t.

In fact, to the extent the council election matters at all in the context of a state election, there is a strong case for the Palaszczuk government to call an election quickly; for the first time, the Communist Party Greens have secured a ward on Council — the previously ultra-safe Labor Woolloongabba ward — and a quick state election would deny the Greens the time to organise, strategise, and harbour their resources strategically for an assault on Labor’s surrounding seats at the state level.

But looking across the aisle at her opponents, Palaszczuk finds nothing but extra reasons to make a dash for a fresh three-year term.

Every party that loses government can find the adjustment to opposition difficult, to say the least, and especially so when it’s the LNP, having squandered the biggest election win in Australian political history after a single term in office.

Yet even this basic law of politics fails to account for the malaise that has passed as “opposition” from the LNP, which has given every appearance over the past 14 months of being more interested in being diverted along tangents and squabbling internally than in any serious endeavour to tear the shaky Palaszczuk regime apart.

The very, very heavily qualified endorsement of the LNP I published on the day of last year’s state election explicitly stated that it would be void if the party restored Lawrence Springborg to its leadership after the expected defeat of Newman in his seat of Ashgrove: and the reasons for that refusal to back Springborg have been visible for all to see ever since, and readers can access some of my past writings on that subject through this article and the links embedded in it.

Just as Palaszczuk’s government is open to the charge it has done nothing except waste money and try to erase Newman’s from the political landscape, the Springborg LNP has squandered repeated opportunities to inflict real blows on Labor.

It wasted time dithering over whether to try to force a by-election in a traditional Labor seat the LNP narrowly lost last year. It failed to try to engineer a winnable by-election by moving a parliamentary expulsion motion against an MP expelled from the ALP. And the LNP has, beyond a few slogans and a bit of occasional mock outrage, shown Queenslanders that it really doesn’t stand for much if the opportunity to reclaim the Treasury benches should confront it any time soon.

Moreover, the same old charge I have repeatedly levelled at Springborg rings true now: over three state election defeats, he has proven to have exactly zero appeal to voters in Brisbane; they may have elected the LNP to council in consecutive landslides, but they spectacularly failed to embrace him in 2004, 2006 and 2009, and there is nothing to suggest they would do so now.

And the state Parliament — now stacked 42-all to the ALP and LNP, with two Katter MPs, two former Labor MPs and an “Independent” who arguably hates conservative political parties — offers Springborg little chance of a mid-term change of government unless a by-election happens in a Labor seat that the LNP wins.

If the expelled (Billy Gordon) and disgruntled (Rob Pyne) former Labor members tried to support a Springborg government in retaliation for an attempt by Palaszczuk to call an election, the Premier could plausibly argue that the behaviour of both in Parliament (especially Gordon) in almost invariably voting with the ALP shows stability could not be guaranteed by such an arrangement, and I would think she would be granted any dissolution of Parliament she sought.

I was discussing these matters with a mate of mine from Queensland during the week and suggested (rather inelegantly) that unless the LNP got its shit together and replaced Springborg with someone from Brisbane, and quickly, it risked getting its collective dick stuck in a pencil sharpener: and if Palaszczuk were so inclined to provoke Pyne and Gordon into the folly of publicly withdrawing support for her government on confidence and supply, then that is exactly what will happen, so to speak.

Pyne and Gordon, for their trouble, are unlikely to survive a state election; meanwhile, with Springborg in charge, Brisbane — where the LNP must win seats if it is to reclaim office in Queensland — is unlikely to swing against Labor at all, and could yield an additional three seats to the ALP (enough to win the election) on a swing to Labor in the capital of less than 2%. As things stand, that swing is likely to be closer to 5%, costing the LNP half its remaining Brisbane seats and leaving it with just the five (out of 38) secured on Springborg’s watch in 2009.

Just those results alone would sorely tempt Palaszczuk to chance her arm.

Last January, the LNP lost 24 seats in Brisbane and 12 elsewhere in the state. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where that election was lost, or where the party’s current electoral weakness lies. By persisting with Springborg, the LNP risks being wiped out in Brisbane perhaps just weeks after securing arguably its greatest triumph on the city’s Council.

And this brings me back to Malcolm Turnbull, and why a state election in Queensland on 14 May must be a tantalising bet.

Such an election would need to be called by mid-April; that’s only a window for the LNP to get rid of Springborg of a few short weeks, and replacing Springborg with someone from the south-east is perhaps the only way to stop an early election from costing it a stack of seats in and around the capital.

With a double dissolution to be formally called on 11 May, the timing of polling day in Queensland for 14 May would lob a grenade squarely at the federal Coalition’s election campaign: and if Labor were to win in Queensland, the knock-on effects might be considerable.

Calling the election in Queensland would bet on Turnbull following suit on 11 May, but as I explained at the outset, I think Palaszczuk could count on that: and it would lock Turnbull into gambling on the possibility of having to contend with a Labor election win that I think would be a certainty given the LNP’s current leadership.

For one thing, it would erase the Brisbane City Council result as a brake on federal Labor’s prospects in Queensland, where fully one-quarter of the Turnbull government’s lower house electorates are held.

For another, it would gift momentum to Shorten, who might be lacking where policies and ethics are concerned, but has proven uncannily adroit in milking the conservatives’ woes for populist gain. Just ask Tony Abbott.

And there is a precedent for federal Labor to gain from the good fortune of its state counterparts immediately prior to a federal election: in 1983, with the overall winner of an early double dissolution already as good as certain the day it was called thanks to Bob Hawke’s ascension to the ALP leadership that morning, a state election in Western Australia, two weeks before polling day, secured the ALP a win and a change of government; there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Brian Burke’s win in WA added momentum to Hawke’s campaign that ultimately magnified the scale of his win over Malcolm Fraser. Whilst the comparisons aren’t necessarily straightforward, something similar in this case would fill Shorten’s sails with wind as he tackled Turnbull.

And unlike Springborg, Shorten certainly knows how to capitalise on his opportunities, no matter what (or how little) you might think of him.

In short, Turnbull might be walking straight into a trap: virtually obliged to call a double dissolution election amid falling poll numbers, policy confusion, misfiring communications strategies and after a string of ministerial scandals that have exposed his dubious political judgement — and faced by a resolute, if unscrupulously unprincipled, opponent — a Labor win in one of the big eastern states in the early days of a federal election campaign might be one blow the Coalition simply can’t counter, spin, or explain away.

If you like to have a wager, the field trip to the TAB to bet on the date of the next state election in Queensland could be a richly profitable walk.

 

This article originally suggested a Queensland state election on 13 May, until it was pointed out to me I’d inadvertently proposed a polling date that fell on a Friday. See, I am human, too.  🙂