Monday, March 21, 2016

Monday Forum - Australia's messy politics

Last week's marathon Senate sitting may finally have passed the Government's proposed changes to the Senate voting laws, but it's left something of a political mess that will take some time to work through. I'm inclined to think that changes were required, but the way in which it was done has left a tarnish on the change's proponents - the Government, the Greens and Senator Xenophon

From a national viewpoint, the way that the Government handled the matter and the associated discussion on election dates has effectively started the election campaign, leaving Australia with what is now in a practical of not formal sense a caretaker Government. Three months is a long time to be without effective Government.

I have no idea who will win the election or indeed what the Senate itself might finally look like. A month ago I would have strongly favoured the Coalition to win, but now all bets are off. As we saw in Canada or indeed in the last UK election, there can be unexpected results.

One of the Government's problems is that it has lost coherence and direction. You can see the effect in the precipitous fall in Prime Minister Turnbull's approval ratings from previous stratospheric levels down to 39% with a first net negative approval. Opposition Leader Shorten may be still be bobbing along below the PM, but Mr Turnbull must be concerned at the trend..

It's actually difficult to see what Mr Turnbull and the Government might do about this in a practical sense, given the Government's loss of authority. It's very messy all round.

I wondered what you thought about the whole affair, what you think might happen and why?


I hadn't expected that this Forum would coincide with today's announcement. I quote the PM:
Today, I called upon His Excellency the Governor General to advise him to recall both Houses of Parliament on April 18 to consider and pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission Bills and the Registered Organisations Bill and he has made a proclamation to that effect. 
I make no apology for interrupting Senators’ seven week break to bring them back to deal with this legislation. 
This is an opportunity for the Senate to do its job of legislating rather than filibustering – the go-slows and obstruction by Labor and the Greens on this key legislation must end. 
The Senate will have an additional three sitting weeks to deal with the ABCC and Registered Organisations legislation – plenty of time to pass these important laws. 
If the Senate fails to pass these laws, I will advise the Governor General to dissolve both Houses of Parliament and issue writs for an election. 
Because such a double dissolution must be done on or before the 11th of May, the Government will be bringing the Budget forward to Tuesday 3rd of May so that Mr Shorten will be able to deliver his reply on the Thursday in the usual way.
.The election would be held on 2 July.

The announcement has been brewing for some time. The delay was partly connected with the need to resolves constitutional issues. You will get some feel for those from these letters to the Governor General and his response.The delay was also connected with the desire to get through the changes to the Senate electoral legislation. But to say, as some commentators have, that it came a surprise was simply odd. After all, we have been debating the issues and mechanisms for months, while the Government has actually been signalling it, if not always intentionally, for some while. However, the exact form of the announcement was interesting, playing to the constitution and politics.

Prorogue means to dissolve. By persuading the Governor General to formally end the old Senate session, and then call a new one, the Government has stopped certain blocking possibilities within the Senate. The Government wants to fight the next election on industrial relations since this is about the only weapon left in its armory that has not become discredited or tarnished to some degree. If the Senate again blocks the Australian Building and Construction Commission.legislation, the Government will fight (or try too) on its chosen industrial field. If the Senate lets it through, then the Government will claim a victory.

The commentors have pointed to the new decisive Malcolm - here, here and here, for example. I quote Mark Kenny:: "Have no illusion, this is less bluff, more statement of intent. And it represents strong leadership of the kind some had worried might have abandoned the Prime Minister." 

The Government is playing hard ball politics, there is no doubt of that. I think that it will also unite a fracturing Liberal Party, at least for the immediate future. But there is a little more to it than that, 

It is just over three months to the first election date. That's a long time. If, as the Government does not want, the Senate passes the legislation, then the election date is moved into the second half of the year. More time. There will be much political theatre in the meantime, but three to five months is a very long time to have the country run by what is effectively a caretaker Government in election mode. The Government was already suffering to a degree from election induced paralysis created in large part by itself. Now this will just drag on. 

I don't know what will happen. I wouldn't assume, for example, that Opposition Leader Shorten will survive the process. The dynamics now are different. I can see a very bitter and divisive election process fought on negatives.   .

. .


2 tannes said...

My personal opinion is that the Greens are the big losers, followed by Turnbull. Xenophon has a personal following which will excuse political manoeuvring where it seems clear that the major parties are ganging up to get rid of him. The Greens have lost their ideological purity by voting against having their own legislation passed, a move which will anger their base. They should have consulted the history books and seen who won and lost from the GST. Hint: the Coalition stayed in power and the Australian Democrats in-fought themselves into oblivion.

Turnbull is looking rudderless, which isn't quite as bad as his predecessor's bull-in-a-china-shop approach, but also is not what was on the packet as advertised (mature discussion of the issues, subtext: courageous moves after discussion).

Penny Wong has had a field day with some great lines, but let's face it - few remember political zingers the next week. However, Labor will give the Greens a total belting for betraying their commitment to never vote against climate legislation. It's about now that Labor historians will be calling this the second Greens vote to stymie climate change legislation. Between a fall-off in Coalition support, an alienation of the Greens voter base and any changes to Senate seat allocation rules, enough may have been done to hand the Senate to Labor.

Jim Belshaw said...

I haven't done the electoral maths, 2t. It's actually very hard to see how these things will work out. I am listening to the ABC commentary as I write. I quote: "the more enduring memory will be the PM acting decisively." And again: "He has wedged the Greens and Labor". On the first, it depends on events. On the second, if I could work out the possibilities if not the details and Labor and the Greens could not, they need better strategists!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I think you are right that the enduring memory will be be the PM acting decisively.

I am hopeful that the coming budget will provide further evidence of decisive action.

2 tanners said...

Certainly he's wedged the Greens. LNP voted against hearing the ABCC bill and Greens voted against the SSM bill, but only the latter got real airplay. And if the ABCC bill goes through, he says he won't hold a DD after all. He won, Greens lost and Labor is in the middle.

The Budget will be fascinating. If I understand Antony Green correctly, then if the ABCC Bill passes it will be a full fledged budget, but if he's calling a DD it will be a no new initiatives budget to carry supply across the election period. If a full fledged budget, though, the key test is will it be a Turnbull budget, or will it be, as TA says, an unchanged Abbott budget?

Jim Belshaw said...

On decisiveness, Winton, I was quoting the commentators! I don't know whether or not MT will be seen that way. I wouldn't hold your breath on the budget.

2t, I'm inclined to agree on wedging the Greens. On the budget, you raise an interesting point. It comes back to conventions and timing. My feeling is that it will be a full budget, although not one to satisfy Winton, with the election formally called after that date. The budget will then become part of the election campaign, with implementation deferred.

Whichever way it goes, whatever the Government announces now is part of the election. We won't get anything new implemented until after the election beyond machinery stuff. The way the process has worked starting from the mishandled earlier speculation has effectively puts a six to eight month hiatus in the governing process.

2 tanners said...

I think I was wrong about the Greens. This way they get more representatives in the senate at the expense of the microparties (i.e. potential control of the cross benches) and who are Green voters, angered by the cynicism going to go to? Possibly the Sex Party in Victoria, who actually have a chance this time, but really, no-one.

You might be right about the budget, as Labor's 40 year old policy is that it will not block supply. I'd take that as including deferral given the history of the policy.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2t. I'm sure that's their thinking. And your point about alternatives is a fair one. I guess that the question becomes how many Green supporters are in fact prepared to vote Labor or, less likely, Liberal or Xenephon for that matter?

I think that my point on the budget was a little different. Some form of supply bills will be passed, but the supporting legislative changes will have to wait for the election.