As far as 24 hour periods go, yesterday was a big one in the world of Australian politics.
If your head is spinning with too many acronyms and you thought ‘double dissolution’ was some sort of chemical reaction from year 9 science class, then don’t panic.
Let’s start with the basics. What happened yesterday?
You might have see on TV that the Senate went a little bit nutty last week. The Senators worked all night long (one of them even wore his PJs into the chamber) and there were discussions about farts and colonoscopies (but actually, there were). Part of the reason the Senate kept debating until the sun came up is because it was the end of a sitting period. This was it: their last chance to pass any new laws until Parliament returned in mid May.
Think of it like this: The Pictionary timer is fast running out of sand and you’re not remotely close to the answer. The opposing team are yelling distracting comments from the sidelines, you and your partner are getting desperate. You’re so anxious that there’s no longer very much actual drawing going on – just a lot of urgent, pointed stabbing of the paper. That was the Australian Senate’s collective state of mind.
But yesterday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull surprised everyone by saying “Nope, this round isn’t done yet. Parliament Pictionary is BACK ON and this time it’s an ALL PLAY”. He told the Governor General to bring the politicians back to Canberra in April, specifically to debate a bill that would restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Turnbull says that if the doesn’t Senate pass the bill, he’ll call an early election (called a ‘Double Dissolution’) and Australia will go to the polls on 2 July 2016. He’s also brought the budget forward by a week in order to make this all possible.
Wait a second… The Prime Minister can do that? He can just CANCEL people’s holidays?
Well, Turnbull didn’t cancel anyone’s holidays. Politicians aren’t just working when they’re in the Parliament but also when they’re back in their electorates or home states, meeting with the people they represent. But yes, the Prime Minister can ask the Governor General to recall Parliament and the Governor General pretty much has to do what he says. (It’s a little like cards, where the Prime Minister is the dealer and wields the ultimate control and the Governor General is the kid who gets handed the crumpled rules sheet so he feels like part of the game).
Okay then, what is this ABCC bill that the Senate has to pass?
The Australian Building and Construction Commission (or ‘the ABCC’) is an industry watchdog. It’s an organisation that was set up by the Howard Government in 2005 to monitor the construction sector and make sure workplace laws were adequately enforced. It was overhauled by the Rudd Government in 2012, when it was renamed and its powers significantly reduced. Malcolm Turnbull and his party now have a bill before parliament that will recreate the ABCC yet again, aligning its purpose and powers more closely with what John Howard envisioned.
That doesn’t sound so unreasonable. What’s the big deal?
The Government’s ABCC bill would give the commission significant coercive powers and the right to impose severe penalties, far in excess of any other industrial regulator. Those coercive powers include the right to force people to attend interviews with the commission and compel them to speak – basically overriding the right to silence. If a person didn’t comply with the commission? They could go to jail (directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200).
The ALP and the Greens think that the construction industry is being unfairly singled out by the Government. They’ve voted down this bill. Twice. The cross benchers (who hold the balance of power in the Senate) have also voted against the Government and so far, stopped the ABCC bill from becoming law.
The Parliament will now debate the bill again and if it doesn’t pass this time, Parliament will be dissolved as per Malcolm Turnbull’s threat and there will be an early election. AKA the Prime Minister has seriously increased the pressure on the cross benchers to change their votes or risk losing their positions as Senators at the election.
How come I’ve never heard of the ABCC but suddenly it’s important enough to have an election because of it?
While it might appear that this particular game of Cluedo comes down to the Liberals, in the Senate, with the ABCC Bill, that’s absolutely not the case. This is NOT about the ABCC. This is about Malcolm, on the campaign trail, with the political narrative.
You seen, yesterday was a carefully calculated political move by Malcolm Turnbull.
He is in the difficult position of having to pander to the political conservatives on his backbench (those who supported Tony Abbott) while also keeping the public happy. Successful passage of the ABCC legislation represents a mammoth political hit against the ALP and the union movement. Moreover, Turnbull figures that anything which draws public’s attention to alleged corruption in the union movement is a good thing for the Liberals and a bad thing for pro-union Labor, particularly Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
How come the Prime Minister can just decide to have the election early? Aren’t they held every three years?
A double dissolution election is the parliamentary equivalent of turning over the Monopoly board and shouting “I can’t play with these properties any more” and forcing a reset. It’s reserved for occasions when the elected make up of the Parliament is considered unworkable and the Government cannot govern effectively.
A double dissolution requires a ‘trigger’. A trigger is bill which has passed the House of Representatives but been rejected by the Senate at least twice, with a period of at least three months between each rejection. This is considered proof that the House of Representatives and the Senate can’t work together. If the ABCC Bill is rejected again next month then Malcolm Turnbull has his trigger.
PM Malcolm Turnbull recalls the Senate. Via ABC (post continues after video):
Why is Malcolm Turnbull making all this fuss? Why doesn’t he just have a regular election?
A double dissolution election doesn’t just allow the Prime Minister and their Government to go to the polls early, it’s also special because it requires every single seat in the Senate and the House of Representatives to go up for election. At a regular election only half the Senate is dissolved because Senators get six year terms. He’s basically making everyone throw their cards back into a pile for a reshuffle before anyone gets to yell “UNO“.
A new House of Representatives with less Abbott supporters hanging around and making trouble is good news for Turnbull. A new Senate in which he’s likely to have greater control is also a win. Remember that crazy all night business the Senate pulled last week? One of the things they voted for was new rules which will make it harder for independents and micro-parties to be elected. Malcolm Turnbull is betting that if he goes to a double dissolution election, the new Senate will be much easier to negotiate with, making his government all the more powerful.
People are also talking about the budget. Is all this connected to the budget?
The budget is usually held on the second Tuesday in May. It’s important politically because it’s the Government’s chance to lay out their economic agenda for the year ahead. It’s also important practically because the budget is a series of supply (or funding) bills, which have to pass through both houses of Parliament so that the Government can pay for things.
Once a formal election campaign kicks off, the Government goes into ‘caretaker’ mode which means they don’t get to pay for new things anymore. They have to wait until the people elect a new Government before deviating from their previous spending plans. This means Malcolm Turnbull has had to bring the budget forward by one week, to 3 May, as a precaution. It’s the ultimate ‘just in case’ move, the budget is Turnbull’s equivalent of the Scrabble ‘Q’ – there are really high points attached but he needs the ‘U’ to be able to use it to greatest effect.
To summarise: Parliament comes back in April to debate the ABCC bills, which are likely to be voted down again. Then Malcolm Turnbull and his Treasurer Scott Morrison can deliver the Budget the following week and tell the country how they want to spend their money. Bill Shorten gets to respond and then the starting gun will fire and we’re off to the polls on 2 July.
Does all this make Malcolm Turnbull a political genius?
It definitely makes Malcolm Turnbull a calculated political operative and someone who is willing to take a risk to get the Parliament he wants. It also proves that he is playing a long game and not falling victim to the short-term, rushed decision poll driven politics we’ve seen in recent years. And if that doesn’t amount to being skilled in the drawing, plasticine, word play and charades elements of Cranium then I don’t know what does.
Turnbull is hoping to craft a political series of events that will see the election fought on issues of economic stability, set against a backdrop of union corruption. If the ABCC bill successfully passes the Senate in April, then Turnbull has won a big political victory against Labor and the Greens, as well as given a huge symbolic gift to the conservatives in his own party. If, as is more likely, the bill is defeated again then Turnbull’s intention will be to go into the election riding high off the back of the budget announcement and able to continually poke and prod Labor about union corruption throughout the campaign.
Critical here, is whether or not Turnbull can deliver a budget that garners the public response he is hoping for. He’s floundered in the polls in recent months, culminating in a high disapproval than approval rating delivered in Newspoll yesterday. The expectations on the Prime Minister to deliver significant budgetary reform are extremely high. It’s an election year so the usual political approach would be involve providing tax relief and other sweeteners for the voting public.
But Turnbull has proven in the past few weeks that his approach is anything but usual…
Double dissolution? Senators in pyjamas? Whaddy whaddy wha? Editor-at-Large Jamila Rizvi explains on Mamamia OutLoud: