Malcolm Turnbull, who ousted Tony Abbott in a back room Liberal Party vote six months ago to become the country’s leader, is threatening to call an early election against a backdrop of falling popularity.
While he promised party cohesion and renewed vigor in policy making, he is facing some of the difficulties that afflicted his predecessor amid accusations by the Labor opposition and business leaders of procrastination. His few concrete plans, such as taxation reform and reining in unions, have failed to gain much momentum.
The country is already in a lengthy quasi election campaign, amid the internal party bickering that has characterized Australian politics in recent years. With the economy needing new growth drivers as a mining investment boom wanes, the risk is the government shirks much-needed reforms to avoid falling behind in opinion polls.
“Australians are aware the nation’s politics have become a bit of an embarrassing circus,” said John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party and opposition leader in the early 1990s. “Turnbull has been sending out positive messages since becoming prime minister but he’s burned political capital by not doing anything, so he now has to produce some policy detail and deliver the solid, deliverable government voters want.”
Turnbull is gambling over the Senate’s refusal to approve industrial relations laws: If it fails again to pass the legislation in the next sitting period, the former banker has threatened to call what is known as a double-dissolution election for July 2, where both houses of parliament are up for grabs.
His personal popularity has fallen to 39 percent from highs of 60 percent last November and such an election carries risks. His government will deliver a budget in May with little in the coffers to offer as sweeteners, while the conservative wing of his coalition wants him to ditch his support of same-sex marriage. The length of the prospective campaign means more time for negatives to emerge that may be out of his control.
“Turnbull is taking this risk of trying to bring the election on early because he saw an opportunity to surprise his opponents and he’s probably impatient to get the mandate to rule a win will give him,” said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University in Canberra. “But he needs to be careful that by focusing so much on the finish line, he doesn’t step on all the land mines in between.”
While the latest Newspoll shows his government is on track to defeat the main Labor opposition, Turnbull needs to quickly bring cohesion to a coalition that has suffered a spate of resignations and the planned retirement of some senior ministers. In the current political mood, prime ministers only have a short time to deliver before frustration sets in. Since 2010, three leaders have been removed by their own party rather than at an election.
Initial optimism among the business community that Turnbull would usher in an era of economic reform has been replaced by disappointment, according to Bank of Melbourne Chair Elizabeth Proust.
There was a great expectation when Turnbull ousted Abbott that “it was almost a change of government,” Proust said last week during an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television debate. “The fact that so much has been ruled out in the lead up to the election, and not just tax reform, I think is disappointing.”
Turnbull has been forced to govern with his predecessor still sitting in parliament and criticizing his actions. The former prime minister said last week the “Turnbull government is running on the Abbott government’s record,” pointing to proposed reforms of the media industry and competition laws. Turnbull distanced himself from the previous administration on Wednesday by backing clean energy projects opposed by Abbott.
After pushing through laws this month that will make it harder for independent and micro-party candidates to win Senate seats, Turnbull is enforcing a barely used section of the constitution to order a recall parliament on April 18, three weeks ahead of schedule.
He’s also delivered an ultimatum: Should the Senate fail to pass laws to combat union militarism by mid-May, he’d call the first double-dissolution election in three decades. A full election in both house would potentially uproot obstructionist senators from smaller parties who hold the balance of power.
The cross benchers, most have whom have pledged not to support the union laws, were snookered. If they vote against the legislation again, the Senate reforms mean most will likely lose their seats in a July double-dissolution ballot. If they support it, Turnbull would prepare for a normal election between August and October for the full lower house and half the Senate. In such a scenario, they’d keep their seats for another three years but risk losing credibility for saving their skins.
The government is looking to Senator Bob Day of the Family First Party to help negotiate with other cross benchers on the union watchdog laws, Turnbull told reporters in Sydney Tuesday. If six of the eight independent senators support the bill, a double dissolution will be averted, he said.
“Until he gets some clear air through winning the election, we’re not going to know for certain whether he’s going to be the great leader most Australians want,” said Peter Chen, a senior political lecturer at the University of Sydney, speaking of Turnbull. “While there’s risks in a long election campaign that something can go wrong, at least his positioning in recent weeks shows he’s very likely to get that chance.”