Strap yourself in Australia: we’re headed for a July double dissolution! Now a few of you may be wondering, hey Pelly, what exactly is a double dissolution? Simply put, when we vote at a normal federal election, every seat in the House of Representatives (where the Prime Minister and MPs sit) is vacated and is up for election, but only half of the Senate seats are. In a double dissolution, the difference is that every one of the 76 seats in the Senate is declared vacant and up for new federal butts to slide into. It’s a tactic used by confident (perhaps headstrong) Prime Ministers and their governments to try to change the composition of the Senate, which – if all goes to plan – enables them to pass legislation with less hassle and blockage. When you look at the current makeup of the Senate – with its mix of the major parties, various Independents, rogue PUP Senators and the endearing Ricky Muir – it’s easy to see why Turnbull found the double-D option alluring. With the changes to Senate voting that the Coalition pushed through the Senate weeks prior, many of the non-major party aligned Senators are unlikely to be reelected.
Australia has not had a double dissolution election in more than 30 years, and there have only been six in the nation’s history since federation. You could take this as a sign of the robustness of Australian parliamentary democracy and the tendency toward consensus of incumbent governments for the past few decades. Conversely, it’s also a sign that incumbent leaders passed have been loath to take such a political risk.
Last week, the double dissolution was triggered when the Senate rejected the Coalition’s bill to reinstate the ABCC (Australian Building and Construction Commission) for the second time. Turnbull knew that with no chance for Labor support and rebellious crossbenchers the bill had no chance of passing. The budget has been moved forward to accommodate an early election and the gauntlet was thrown down. All that there is left to do is for Turnbull to ask the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove after the budget to dissolve both houses. After which, there will be a federal election on the 2nd of July.
After nearly a year and a half of the ALP winning election polls, Malcolm Turnbull snatched the top job from Tony Abbott in a party-room ballot, 54 – 45. And really you can’t blame the LNP. Even the cardboard cutout PM-slaying Shorten was more popular with voters than the Mad Monk by that time, after the 2014 budget, the knights and dames scandal, the infamous radio wink, the plethora of broken pre-election promises, his arrogant insistence on having a mandate to push through every scrap of legislation… the list goes on. The initial reaction from the Australian public was overwhelmingly positive. Gone was the Onion King, and in was suave, sexy, silver fox Turnbull – a man who welcomed a conversation about policy rather than dictating it. The public hailed a leader we could trust, at least to the extent of not embarrassing us. Following the coup, Turnbull has continued to dominate in preferred leader stakes, even as the Two Party Preferred (2PP) polls even out.
Many believed that once Turnbull seized the leadership, it was a done deal. The zinger-laden union hack Shorten had no chance of dueling toe-to-toe with the millionaire from Sydney. In Australia’s increasingly US-style presidentialised media-driven political cycle, the personalities of leaders have never been more important. However, as 2015 came to a close and the new year began, chinks began showing in the LNP’s armor. There remain many unresolved issues within the Coalition ranks that Turnbull had hoped to sweep under the rug – at least until he had secured a 2016 election victory.
For Turnbull, the honeymoon is certainly over.
Despite claiming to be reformed, Turnbull has made very few changes to policies that Abbott championed, and Labor has campaigned vigorously on this. “What has happened to Turnbull’s principled stance on climate change?” they ask. “And why does Turnbull insist on waiting until after the election to settle marriage equality?”
The PM has found himself increasingly paralysed; squeezed between Labor accusations on one side, and the lingering conservative wing of the Coalition on the other. Now that the polls have drastically closed the gap between the Liberal Party and Labor, many in his ranks are beginning to wonder if dumping Abbott was the right decision after all. Whilst it’s almost to a certainty that Turnbull will lead the government to the next election, if it is anything less than a resounding victory, many in the Coalition will be asking him (and themselves) some hard questions.
Meanwhile, as Turnbull’s star fades, Shorten seems to have shaped up as leader. He’s ditched the zingers and even begun to sound slightly Prime Ministerial. Shorten has made waves going after the big end of town, calling for changes to negative gearing and a Royal Commission into the banking sector. Turnbull, in contrast, has announced few initiatives and policies, refusing to take risks.
Shorten has however recently lost some political capital with casual wage earners, announcing that he will support changes to penalty rates if the Fair Work Commission recommends it. This can also be seen as a sign that he’s confident enough of casual wage earners votes to lose political capital with them in order to cosy up to business.
Despite his own personal charm, the ghosts of Turnbull’s party continue to haunt him. Sophie Mirabella’s recent claim that the people of Indi missed out on $10m of federal funding for the Wangaratta hospital because they elected Independent Cathy McGowan instead of her in 2010 was met with disbelief on both sides of politics. Whilst Turnbull distanced himself from the comments afterwards, the damage was done. Every time Turnbull tries to seize the initiative it seems, his party holds him back.
At the moment, the Coalition seems on the back foot. But they are playing from a place of superiority, and are trying to stay above the competitive scrum of campaigning for now. However, it looks as if Labor will not give them that luxury. In the next 70 days, we are likely to see the lead shift dozens of times, and a whole lot of jockeying, pundit-calling, and bet-placing on all sides to boot. This is a long election campaign – unlike any we’ve seen in many years – and each day will bear witness to a new battle. Both leaders have not yet fought a campaign from the leader’s seat, and while Turnbull struggles with the support of his party, Shorten struggles with the support of the Australian people. Will Turnbull be able to hold his party together to clasp a win? Will Shorten be able to gain the confidence of the electorate? The lines have been drawn and both sides are digging in for a cold campaign season. Take heed, Billy and The Bull, winter is coming.
Words by Brad Griffin