INDICATIONS are that Liberal Party strategists are working with an eye to the election due, barring unforeseens, in 2016; in this context, the motion of no confidence in the government that Tony Abbott threatened to move this week — forcing it to the polls next month — might best be quietly abandoned.
I’ve been flicking through the Monday papers online, and an article by Sid Maher and Joe Kelly in The Australian caught my eye; this can be accessed here, and it gels with one aspect of the opposition’s current parliamentary tactics that I can’t agree with.
And as Peter van Onselen (also in The Australian today) neatly puts it, a Coalition government’s first term will be largely spent funding their own promises, funding Labor’s late-term commitments and finding ways to reduce spending; the real reforms will be presented to the electorate in 2016, and be enacted during Abbott’s second term.
Regular readers know I am very open about my membership of the Liberal Party, and my support for Tony Abbott’s leadership of it in particular; even so, there’s relentless pressure and there’s overkill, especially with twelve weeks until Parliament is dissolved anyway.
The article I have linked to today confirms what must be the greatest non-surprise of the past three years; namely, an assessment — attributed to Coalition frontbencher and key tactician Christopher Pyne — that almost three years after selling their ultra-conservative constituencies out by preserving the Labor Party in office, independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott would likely vote in Labor’s favour in any no-confidence vote.
The rationale for attempting to force the Gillard government from office is obvious: a successful no-confidence vote almost certainly secures an immediate election, and in doing so would send the ALP to the polls with the additional rancour of being thrown out of office by a parliamentary vote — just to cap its abysmal record as a government.
The climate in which Abbott’s threat to pursue this course of action was made entirely justifies it: the aborted leadership coup in March, followed by the steady disintegration of the government’s position on key issues — most notably, its management of the budget — is indicative of a government in disarray that should be removed from office by any legitimate means and at all costs.
But even if Windsor and Oakeshott were inclined to do the right thing by their electorates and by the country for once — which I don’t believe for a moment they would, or will — I see a no-confidence vote as pointless, counter-productive, and a potential Pandora’s box.
Let’s assume — for argument’s sake — that the Liberals move a no-confidence motion in Julia Gillard’s government during the budget session as threatened (now, in other words) and that by some miracle Windsor and Oakeshott are persuaded to vote in favour of it.
Does the government fall immediately? Not necessarily.
The accepted wisdom and convention in such circumstances would be that Gillard must either resign or call an election.
Were she to resign, the Governor-General may invite Tony Abbott — as leader of the opposition — to form a government; if thus commissioned, his first act as Prime Minister would almost certainly be to advise an election.
Here, however, is where the problems start; such an election would have to be for the House of Representatives only, as the earliest date constitutionally allowable for half the Senate to face election is Saturday 3 August.
The Senate poses an additional consideration in that a half-Senate election must take place prior to the end of June 2014.
Abbott would be unlikely to delay the House election until 3 August; to do so would mean a formal campaign of eleven weeks in duration, at a time when most ordinary Australians are already fed up with the machinations of Canberra and the goings-on of its politicians.
The only way to avoid this would be holding separate elections, which isn’t much better.
There seems little doubt that the Coalition would win the House election in a landslide, but what would it do about the Senate?
The best of a raft of messy options would be for Abbott (remembering he would be a caretaker Prime Minister only during the House campaign) to immediately issue writs for a half-Senate election to take place in September when those for the House election are returned.
It would keep the period the country remained in “campaign mode” to a minimum, and a single bloc; but it wouldn’t be any better than running a continuous campaign for the August option if the no-confidence motion removed Gillard from office.
Another “pro” would be that Abbott could use the deferred Senate election to strike as quickly as possible after the House win, and before any gloss wore off his newly-minted government; the “con” is that with a second five-week campaign so soon after handing the Liberals a massive majority in the lower house, voters might think twice about replicating the favour in the Senate.
It’s an important point; despite the solid overall 2010 result for the Coalition, in the Senate it went backwards; those Senators elected last time superseded those from 2004, when historic gains for the Right handed the Howard government a slim Senate majority.
Abbott would be loathe to risk diluting a Senate vote that may well neuter the Greens; a separate Senate election could very well do that.
In any case, the current Senate is exceedingly hostile to the Coalition, and the ability to maximise conservative numbers there as Senators elected in 2007 face re-election this year simply cannot be compromised if the Liberals are to lead an operational government.
Messy, isn’t it? But these considerations are precisely what a successful vote of no confidence may lead to.
Even so, there are other scenarios that wouldn’t do the Liberal Party any favours either.
One is that following such a no-confidence vote, a new Labor leader does the same deal with the independents that Gillard originally did, advises the Governor-General that they retain the numbers to form government in the House of Representatives, and the ALP continues on its present trajectory under either Kevin Rudd or Bill Shorten.
As inconceivable as a Labor win at this year’s election may seem now, such a development would provide the ALP with the badly needed circuit breaker it has been looking for, and to that end, federal politics could well prove to be a whole new ball game, so to speak.
The election result certainly couldn’t be guaranteed as it can now, for a start.
And were such an outcome to eventuate, the psychological damage to the Liberal Party would be colossal; it would be seen to have gambled recklessly and impatiently to get the election it needed only wait an additional few months for — only for its punt to have spectacularly backfired.
The third option, of course, is that Abbott is able to move his motion of no confidence in the Gillard government, and having done so, Windsor and Oakeshott remain unmoved and the government’s present numbers ensure the motion is lost.
And that — the best strategic result of all, in my view — doesn’t warrant the grief involved in undertaking the exercise in the first place.
There is an additional problem as well: were the Liberals to get an election before September, they would also have to either own Wayne Swan’s budget or introduce something of their own it is place.
It’s all the more reason, to my mind, to let the Parliament run its course, go to the election in September as scheduled, and ensure Swan and Gillard are held accountable for their actions rather than being seen to let them off the hook in any way whatsoever.
I appreciate this has been a rather convoluted article: it has to be, because a successful no-confidence vote now is more likely to hinder the Liberals’ political interests, not help them.
It’s why, looking ahead to 2016, the best results for Coalition strategists to work with will be secured at an election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate, held concurrently, and most probably on 14 September.
And it’s why, upon seeing the article in The Australian I opened my remarks with, it was impossible not to put my thoughts on the issue to print.