By Cathy Harper. Editor, Election Watch, University of Melbourne
The time for game playing is over. Parliament has been recalled to consider the ABCC and Registered Organisations Bills.— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 20, 2016
Malcolm Turnbull has suddenly brought everything into sharp focus by giving the crossbench Senators an ultimatum:
a) Pass the Government’s planned workplace legislation; or
b) Face being wiped out in a double dissolution election on July 2.
For months, the Turnbull Government has been widely perceived to be slipping into a sort of stasis. No major policy announcements have been made; there’s been disunity within Coalition ranks; and the Government has been facing an increasingly hostile Senate.
The public too have expressed frustration. The Prime Minister’s popularity is down in opinion polls and there was great uncertainty about the date of the election and the Budget.
Clever political tactics
Many of the crossbenchers call it bullying. It could also be described as decisive leadership.
And it’s not just game playing – Turnbull has brought everything into sharp focus and either outcome has significant positives for the Government:
a) If the crossbenchers have a change of heart, the Government will have succeeded in passing the legislation it says is critical for Australia’s productivity. The election would not be a double dissolution, and the crossbenchers will not have to face the polls.
b) If – as expected – the crossbenchers again oppose the Bills after Parliament is recalled on April 18, they face the polls. Many are not expected to be re-elected.
A Double Dissolution may deliver a more workable Senate
Turnbull needs six of the eight crossbenchers to support the Bills for them to be passed. Only one, Family First Senator Bob Day, has said yes.
Most of the others have indicated their continued opposition to the Bills and aren’t happy about the Prime Minister’s move.
PRESS RELEASE— Glenn Lazarus (@SenatorLazarus) March 21, 2016
Senator Lazarus: I won’t be blackmailed into voting for bills by anyone
Senator for Queensland... https://t.co/IJ7TUCTKAj
Senators John Madigan and Jacqui Lambie have also responded candidly.
Senator Madigan said: “I don’t respond to bullies, I don’t respond to threats.” Senator Lambie said: “I will not be blackmailed, I will not have a gun held to my head.’’
It’s possible that between now and when the Bills are debated again in April, some may have a change of heart. Self-interest tends to be a powerful motivating factor.
But the most likely outcome is that Australians will go to the polls on July 2, to decide who will be elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Many of the Senate crossbenchers, such as Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie and Bob Day, would not have been elected at the 2013 election if the new Senate voting rules had been in place.
But the new rules won’t wipe out micro-parties – the system is designed to give voters more control. If the public is fed up with the major parties, significant numbers may express their dissatisfaction by supporting independents or micro-parties.
The Coalition is unlikely to win control of the Senate and may still have to deal with another group of crossbenchers, or the Greens, holding the balance of power.
What about Labor?
Today, Mr Turnbull decided to put his own political future ahead of Australia’s future.— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) March 21, 2016
The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, claims the Prime Minister is in “full panic mode” and his tactics won’t work with the Australian people.
There’s certainly a question mark over whether the voting public – most of whom won’t have heard of the ABCC (Australian Building and Construction Commission) Bill – can be convinced that it’s critical to Australia’s future and important enough to trigger an election.
But the Prime Minister would see the issue of tightening union governance as a weakness for the Opposition Leader given the close ties between Labor and the union movement.
Turnbull has also made sure he can’t be accused of shutting down debate on the Bills, because Parliament has been recalled for three weeks. And by bringing the Budget forward from May 10 to May 3 he’s made sure Shorten has the opportunity for a Budget reply.
It’s a clever crash-through approach.
Banner image: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP