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Tuesday 11 April 2017

Turnbull: Electoral Roulette?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 6th May 2016

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to be trying to exploit a campaign to restore the Australian Building and Corruption Commission to call a snap Australian federal election, but will this backfire on him and his Liberal/National Coalition government?

It would have been the Coalition's approach to industrial relations, but Turnbull backed off confrontation over that one. Instead, four crossbench Independent Senators- Jacqui Lambie, Glen Lazarus, Ricky Muir and John Madigan chose to defy the Coalition and vote against the restoration of the ABCC, thus handing the Prime Minister an opportunity for a double dissolution of the federal Parliament. Although the Coalition has a majority in the lower federal House of Representatives, it doesn't have one in the higher Australian Senate, given that it is elected using the more proportional Single Transferable Vote electoral system compared to the unproportional preferential voting system for the House of Representatives. It would have had to go to the polls in January 2017 when it reached the official end of this parliamentary term, but events have conspired to produce this early option for Prime Minister Turnbull instead

However, in the Australian (and New Zealand) contexts, snap election decisions can and have had perilous outcomes for those that made them. In the case of Australia, Bob Hawke (1984) and Julia Gillard (2010) called snap elections, which their respective governments won with a narrowed majority. As for New Zealand, the most spectacular example of an electoral miscalculation associated with a snap election has to be the thankful demise of the right-wing Muldoon National Party government (1975-1984). Somewhat inebriated at the time, Sir Robert Muldoon called a general election, leading to the end of his nine years of authoritarian rule and the ensuing Labour administrations of David Lange, Geoff Palmer and Mike Moore, Rogernomics, New Zealand's nuclear free legislation and homosexual law reform. However, Muldoon's downfall was probably inevitable, given that no New Zealand government has served longer than three terms since the sixties in New Zealand political history. By contrast, Hawke and Gillard called theirs at the start of their political terms. While Hawke learnt his lesson and went on to govern Australia for another two electoral terms, Gillard was beset by her fratricidal, factional nemesis Kevin Rudd.

The Gillard experience may well be relevant to Malcolm Turnbull, who now finds himself in an analogous situation. Like Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott proved inept in office and a party room coup had to be called to depose him. Unfortunately for Turnbull, like Gillard before him, Abbott has no intention of leaving Australian federal politics and seems intent on rejecting Liberal parliamentary party discipline, as do his former Cabinet cronies Kevin Andrews, Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz and the National Party's George Christensen. Apart from returning to the scientific mainstream on climate change, Turnbull has placated the Liberal religious social conservative faction with an expensive marriage equality plebiscite that Australia cannot really afford and to be held in 2017, gutting the LGBTI-inclusive Australian Safe Schools antibullying programme and now defunding a highly effective and inclusive peer secondary school sex education programme. This is going to antagonise LGBT voters and further alienate them from the Coalition at a time it can ill afford, and probably much the same will happen with Australian social liberal voters, who must have thought that the end had come for the Howard era imposition of religious social conservative "bully pulpit" politics on Australian society. Whether or not attributable to pandering to social conservatives, Coalition caucus disunity or lacklustre economic performance, ALP Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has now drawn level in the polls, and leads a unified party. The question is, will Abetz, Andrews, Bernardi, and Christensen deliberately misbehave and flout party discipline to sabotage their own Prime Minister and cost him the election, in the vain hope of an Abbott comeback afterward?Former Abbott Cabinet Minister Kevin Andrewshas declared thathe would be willing to challenge for the leadership in the right circumstances. Mr Andrews has since complained his comments were taken out of context. Once before, Andrewschallenged Mr Turnbull for the leadership in Opposition in 2009 and came closer than people anticipated. However the contest was always considered a test-run to see if there was support for real change over the emissions trading scheme.Andrews is not considered a credible leadership contender internally among conservatives or moderates.

Ironically enough, it is the Australian Labor Party which traditionally has had a byzantine factional culture, yet now the Liberals seem to be following suit. Such runaway right-wing populism has bred its own nemesis in the form of Donald Trump and the US Republican Party is suffering badly for it as a consequence. Unless Ted Cruz manages a miracle, Trump may end up presiding over a fractured Republican Party, pitted against a rival third-party right-wing candidate as well as Hillary Clinton- or if Trump is rolled at the Republican National Convention, Trump may become that divisive political presence himself. Is Tony Abbott about to become the Coalition's Donald Trump, deliberately encouraging his faction to sabotage the electoral campaign of his prime ministerial rival so he can regain power within a retrenched Liberal/National caucus? It reminds one of the old Cold War adage, in order to save civilisation, it became necessary to destroy it.

Meanwhile, in April 2016, successive Australian federal opinion polls have the Turnbull-led Coalition now slightly behind the ALP or level with it, and also shows a decline in personal popularity for the prime minister himself, after an abortive measure at the Coalition of Australian Governments federal/state/territory meeting related to federal cession of income tax collection to the states and territories and now has to face the failure of his Australian Building and Construction Commission policy in the Australian Senate as well. Australian federal electoral history, Liberal Party factionalism and the Abbott/Turnbull schism will render this an interesting Australian federal election to watch.


Mark Kenny: "Malcolm Turnbull pushes for bills rather than election"The Age:29.03.2016:http://www.theage. eral-politics/political-news/ turnbull-pushes-for-bills- rather-than-election-20160329- gnt3lo.html

Latika Bourke:"Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition lose lead to Labor- Newspoll"The Age: 05.04.2016:http://www.theage. litics/political-news/malcolm- turnbull-and-the-coalition- lose-lead-to-labor-newspoll- 20160404-gnycmg.html

James Massola: "Election 2016: Australians set to head to the polls on July 2 after Senate hands Turnbull a double dissolution trigger"The Age: 19.04.2016:http://www.theage. federal-election-2016/ election-2016-australians-to- head-to-the-polls-on-july-2- after-senate-ha nds-malcolm-turnbull-election- trigger-20160418-go98so.html

Craig Young - 6th May 2016

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