Of the many noteworthy events to have occurred in Australian politics since my last column for the Bharat Times some months ago, none was as important as the fall of Tony Abbott as prime minister and the subsequent ascendancy of Malcolm Turnbull. I did not foresee this transition, mainly because my view was that, having watched Labor implode over leadership politics, the Liberal party would surely avoid any replication of the politics of the previous six years.
Being wrong about this is not the point. Rather, the fact that the Liberal party did topple Abbott was an indication that, not only were the rumours of Abbott’s incompetence at running his party and his government true, they may have been worse than originally thought. In to the breach has stepped Malcolm Turnbull. So far, the new leader has been a rip-roaring success. He is clearly more likeable than Abbott, and this has translated to a surge in the government’s popularity in the opinion polls. The press just love the guy as well, much to the chagrin of Abbott supporters who are still seething at the way ABC journalists in particular were perceived to have been so prejudiced against the former prime minister.
It is now Labor and its leader, Bill Shorten, who look to be in serious trouble as voters flock to embrace Turnbull’s leadership. Even Turnbull’s scarcely disguised proclivity for travelling the land waffling on tax reform that might or might not include a massive increase in the Goods and Services Tax is curbing the electorate’s enthusiasm for the Coalition. This is another affront to the prevailing orthodoxy in Australian politics that one way to commit political suicide if you are from one of the major political parties is to hint at any form of tax increase.
Political journalists like to talk about political ‘honeymoons’ and it is clear that Mr Turnbull is enjoying a very long one of these presumably as a result of the community’s gratitude towards him for getting rid of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Eric Abetz, and Kevin Andrews just to name a few. With Abbott out of the way, the electorate’s dislike of Bill Shorten can now realise its full potential. Malcolm Turnbull is on track to decimate the Labor opposition at the next election. The question now becomes one of what tactics he employs to expedite taking full advantage of this situation.
It is quite obvious that the thing that Turnbull should do next is call a double dissolution election for early 2016. Turnbull does not want to make the mistake of not fully exploiting the capacity the Australian constitution gives prime ministers to capitalise on periods of popularity and run off to an early poll. This was a mistake that Labor’s Kevin Rudd made when, ironically enough, Turnbull lost the opposition leadership back in 2009 and Labor was a mile ahead of the coalition in the opinion polls. Rudd’s failure to go to the polls later cost him the leadership.
The arguments against early elections tend to be twofold: first, such elections give minor parties too much scope to win Senate seats and become a potential obstruction to the government of the day, and, second, that governments that call early elections get punished by the voters who dislike the opportunism associated with calling a double dissolution election.
On the first point Mr Turnbull has nothing to lose. His government is already in a minority situation in the Senate. And the second point is a myth: there have been ten early elections (five of which were double dissolution elections) since 1949 in which the government was returned in eight of them. The two elections that resulted in defeat were the 1975 election forced on Gough Whitlam’s Labor government by the Governor General John Kerr, and Malcolm Fraser’s loss to Bob Hawke in 1983. In that case, Fraser had been delayed from calling an early election by illness. Had he called the election when had wanted to, he would have caught Labor with the much less popular Bill Hayden as leader and the result may well have been different.
The decision Turnbull takes on the question of when the next election will be held will indicate whether the new prime minister is a formidable political strategist, or if he is just lucky because he got the leadership at a time when the alternatives were such unpopular men in the form of Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten. The canny strategist likely to enjoy a long time as prime minister would go for the early election. On the other hand, Turnbull might do as he has been saying and run the full parliamentary term until the end of 2016. In so doing he might give his Labor opponents a break and deal them back in to the political contest – especially if Turnbull persists with his unstructured and undisciplined waffle about tax reform that might or might not include an increase in the GST. There are definitely interesting times ahead.