Guest Notes

Australian notes

23 March 2016

3:00 PM

23 March 2016

3:00 PM

What a heartless man Malcolm Turnbull is. The autumn travel plans of scores of people lie in ruins. Those poor suffering souls − MPs, families and staff − must wait until winter. The taxpayers weep for them. Nonetheless, the vice regal prorogation of the Parliament and its recall on 18 April is a just reward for those delinquent senators who engaged in pointless filibustering almost up to the Palm Sunday vigil. Whatever the motives of the proponents of the reform in the senate’s voting rules − a measure from Tony Abbott’s agenda − the result is just, fair and in accordance with the constitution which requires the senate be directly elected by the people. The reform rightly returns to the people the preferences so brazenly stolen from them over three decades ago. (This has absolutely nothing to do with the Machiavellian plot by certain Liberal grandees for Greens to take House seats from Labor, an error of judgement which they may live to regret.) The government is right to demand both that law and order prevail in the building industry and that those running trade unions be required to act honestly and to indicate that if the senate fails to pass the Abbott government legislation designed to achieve this by 6 May, the Governor-General be asked to dissolve both Houses. The problem I referred to last week remains. Turnbull may have moved too late. Before he grants a double dissolution on or before 11 May, the Governor-General must be satisfied that supply, which runs out on 30 June, will be assured until the meeting of the next parliament. This requires that both Houses approve an interim supply bill likely to be introduced on 3 May with the budget. While it is unlikely that the crossbench and the Greens will agree, Bill Shorten has suggested that Labor would not block supply. Chris Bowen even claims Labor has no ‘tradition’ of blocking supply, but as the official secretary to five governors-general, Sir David Smith, points out, since 1945 Labor has tried to block supply on 170 occasions. The point is that Labor is unlikely to take a decision based on some invented ‘tradition’. Their decision will be political, a considered and pragmatic judgement as to whether Labor will do better out of a double dissolution. The more patient and probably wiser Labor leaders will argue that the vote on the supply bill should be delayed until just after 11 May, thus inflicting an enormous blow on Turnbull’s prestige and authority. This will be portrayed as a significant defeat for a prime minister who has done little more than rely on a fast fading honeymoon and Tony Abbott’s achievements. They will also argue that Labor’s chances in a Spring election would probably be better without giving Malcolm Turnbull at least three more years in office. The more impatient will argue that although unlikely to win a July election, Labor could improve its position in both houses at least marginally. Although a double dissolution will allow Turnbull to negate his emerging image as a ditherer, they will say that the unusually long campaign period is likely to irritate the electorate, for which the government will be blamed. Proponents of this view will argue, probably correctly, that the election triggers will not be the election issues. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was in 1975 when all of the triggers were bills Malcolm Fraser had actually opposed. With the Heydon Royal Commission fading into the past and Craig Thomson no longer sitting in Parliament, it is unlikely the electorate will be voting on union corruption and mismanagement. The election issues are more likely to flow from the budget. Much will depend upon the way this is interpreted by the mainstream media with most of the political journalists being from the Left. This does not mean they will necessarily be biased. But it does mean that the news issues are often chosen from a left-wing perspective. If anyone doubts this, consider why issues such as same sex marriage or indigenous constitutional recognition are so big in the media.

The government has done the opposition a favour by revealing the budget one week earlier, on 3 May. Labor will have sufficient time to judge the reaction to the budget and what issues may emerge in an early election before it takes its decision on supply. If, on the other hand, Turnbull’s ultimatum succeeds and the senate passes the bills not only will the nation benefit from better union management and reduced crime and corruption in the building industry, the PM will have improved his image significantly. But these advances will be overtaken by bread-and-butter issues including those flowing from the budget. It is unlikely that any significant restraints will be imposed on the out-of-control government expenditure, particularly in welfare, so it is unlikely that the taxation burden on the working middle class will be reduced. Malcolm Turnbull’s natural inclination to support left-wing social issues will continue to alienate the Liberal Party homeland and this will be excacerbated, at least in New South Wales, by the tight control of the powerbrokers over the party structure and the rorting of preselections. As in the United States and Europe, the emergence of a Conservative leader and group within or without the coalition will be attractive to that homeland. The United States experience is an important lesson for Australians . While a conservative group from the rank and file – the Tea Party – delivered significant advances for the Republican Party in the Congress and in the states, many of those who were elected under this banner were seen to have subsequently betrayed the conservative cause. A leading example is Marco Rubio, whose failure to win the Florida primary has been attributed− at least in the Australian media − to his performance in recent debates. This is not so. Rubio was elected on a very clear policy of securing borders and not granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. But once in the Senate he worked with the Obama administration in the so-called ‘Gang-of-Eight’ amnesty bill. This is why he lost support in his home state and why so many rank-and-file Republicans are looking to Senator Ted Cruz to follow the tradition established by Ronald Reagan, governing according to sound constitutional principles. As so many European countries are learning, there is an important lesson here for Australia’s politicians.

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