As another New Year slowly winds itself in to action, the time has come to dust off the election maps and put new batteries in the calculator. 2016 is going to be a federal election year, with the only unresolved matter being whether prime minister Malcolm Turnbull calls an early contest or waits for the effluxion of time and heads for the polls towards the end of the year.
Australian prime ministers and their colleagues always deny any intention to race to the polls early, so Mr Turnbull’s current tactic of saying that he wishes the current parliament to run its full term need not be taken as gospel truth. Australian politicians are of the view that foreshadowing an early election will earn the ire of the voters (as well as denying the government the element of surprise over the opposition) but the historical reality is that governments nearly always win early elections and, in a number of cases, have improved their parliamentary numbers as well.
Mr Turnbull and his strategic planners will be sorely tempted to call a double dissolution election possibly as early as March. Turnbull could go for an early election without dissolving the Senate, but this would break the synchronicity of upper and lower house elections. The only way the government could call an early election for both houses would be to dissolve the entire parliament under the auspices of section 57 of the constitution, and there are plenty of defeated government bills that could be used as a trigger.
The consideration that might be mitigating Coalition enthusiasm for an early election, however, is the fear of how many and what type of minor party senators might be elected. A double dissolution election lowers the share of the vote needed to win a Senate seat in each state down from 14.4 percent to 7.7 percent – a much lower electoral threshold that appears to give non-major party candidates a greater chance of winning seats.
The Coalition has struggled with a Senate dominated by minor party and independent senators, and the thinking is that Turnbull would not want to increase cross-bench representation with a double dissolution election. However, in recent time one of the minor parties that did so well in 2014 in the form of the Palmer United Party has experienced a significant decline starting with the defection of a number of PUP senators to sit as independents, and culminating in the apparent collapse of party founder Clive Palmer’s standing in the mining industry.
Instead of the PUP, the most likely beneficiary of a double dissolution Senate contest would be independent senator Nick Xenophon who is currently in the process of putting together a national party organisation. Xenophon is giving the impression of having an interest in impacting on the lower house result, but his greatest potential is in the Senate where he has already acted as something of a leader in cross-bench negotiations with the government to get bills through the parliament.
The thing to remember is that Malcolm Turnbull does not have control of the Senate now, and so it could be argued that his government’s position could not be any worse than it is were there to be a double dissolution election. Indeed, if the PUP has collapsed and the impact of Xenophon proves to be a South Australian-specific phenomenon then it is possible that the Coalition’s position in the upper house might improve at a double dissolution election.
The real incentive for Turnbull to go early, however, is to capitalise on the popularity he is currently enjoying as a result of his successful removal of Tony Abbott as leader and prime minister. A national euphoria over the decline of Abbott has been the dominant theme in Australian politics over the last few months and this is overwhelming in potential negatives for the government arising from things such as persistent rumours of an attempt by Mr Abbott and his supporters to regain the leadership, or, indeed, the even more dangerous tactic of the government producing a series of policy thought bubbles that suggest an increase in the GST rate and a dismantling of week-end penalty rates.
These two policy initiatives have the potential to be extremely unpopular, yet the polls show no sign of an adverse voter reaction to reports that Turnbull and the government are seriously considering instituting these two reforms that will affect the micro-economic well-being of voters especially in marginal seats. The notion of a disconnect between the euphoria voters have for Mr Turnbull as a personality, and the policy agenda being contemplated by his government is nowhere as stark as it is on the matter of the consequences of increases in consumption taxes and decreases in wages especially of the most poorly paid and vulnerable members of the work-force.
Labor’s hope is that the voters will eventually wake up to this contradiction and vote instead for the opposition. The problem here is that opposition leader Bill Shorten has also had his circumstances affected by Turnbull’s rise, for the Labor leader has never looked as uninspiring, dull and cliché ridden as he appears at the moment.
If things carry on in this vein, expect a March election, expect a Turnbull victory, and then, if you are a lower income earner dependent on penalty rates to buttress your microeconomic position, expect to pay for Turnbull’s success especially if he can improve his party’s position in the Senate as well.