By Mungo MacCallum
So with the sillier bit of the silly season behind them, some, at least, of the pundits are drifting back to what they consider their real task – which will consist largely of febrile speculation about the election date.
It is, of course, Malcolm Turnbull’s call, and he is clearly not too keen on following the urgings of some of his supporters to go early, go hard.
With overweening self-confidence and considerable justification, he believes he can beat Bill Shorten (or any one else for that matter) any time, any place, so there is no hurry. He is rather enjoying settling in to the Prime Ministership, and an election would be more of a distraction than a vindication; he has all the vindication he needs in the polls and public plaudits he has been accorded.
But his superego is not entirely shared by many of his colleagues; while they agree with the leader’s conviction that the election itself is pretty much in the bag, history proves that there will be a few of their seats lost, and the fewer the better. Their feeling is that this is just about as good as it will get and there are some reasons to believe that they may well be right.
The overriding worry is the economy. China is still a big unknown – there is no guarantee that it will continue to underpin Australia indefinitely, and the mood among both consumers and investors is fragile. The debt and deficit situation is deteriorating and that infallible index of greed and fear, the stock market, is described, delicately, as volatile – meaning that it could crash at any moment.
The new treasurer, Scott Morrison, has been a bit of a disappointment: nothing is actually being achieved and most of his statements sound a trifle Hockeyish – the ultimate put down. His forthcoming tax manifesto is a source of apprehension, but the May budget will be, as The Australian would no doubt describe it, the real test; if it tanks, or even if it is seen to tank, Morrison, and therefore Turnbull, could be in trouble.
So there are some economic plusses to go to the people before any shit hits the fan. But the same applies to the politics. It has become clear that the Abbotistas have not given up, and have no intention to do so. The man himself is still bouncing around and his chief enforcers, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, are pretending to be some kind of government in exile. They will now be joined by Jamie Briggs, while the fifth column is alive and well in the bowels of the party.
But, as the finally downstanding Mal Brough has reminded us, it is not just Turnbull’s detractors that are a problem: some of his biggest boosters are not too flash either. One of the major advantages of a quick and relatively clean election is that it would reinforce the Prime Minister’s mandate not only among the voters, but in the party room in the way a mere reshuffle can never do.
It would give him a chance to really clean out the trash accumulated by the last two years, and yes, we are talking about you, Peter Dutton. It could never be the kind of purge Turnbull would secretly long for, but it would be a big help.
There will be some things he cannot control – a few of the less Neanderthal conservatives will have to be preserved, along with state balances. And the majority of those who have promoted as part of his push for power have to stay – with the possibility, even the likelihood, that Brough stays permanently on the back burner, he will have enough potential assassins. But an election, and the promise of a new start, should cement Turnbull’s authority – and it might give him yet another public lift if he unveils something closer to a genuinely 21st century ministry. A few extra women would help for starters.
But having said all that, there is a real risk that an election would not really change the basic impasse of a hostile senate. Turnbull is keen to get rid of the minor parties through the medium of electoral reform; but even if he can push this through – the simplest and fairest way to allow preferences for parties above the line – there are bound to be some intransigents.
The Greens may lose a seat or two, but a few at least of the intransigents from the micro parties have established their profiles sufficiently to give them a chance of survival. Jacqui Lambie could hold on in Tasmania; Glenn Lazarus and David Leyonhjelm are chances, and even Bob Day and Ricky Muir might be roughies. John Madigan could get enough Liberal preferences for him to become a semi-permanent fixture and there is the threat of extra candidates for Nick Xenophon.
And of course the lower quotas needed in a double dissolution election make things worse, not better. And on top of that a double dissolution would mean another half senate election out of kilter, in 2018. Turnbull might well be right; it would all be far more trouble than it would be worth.
And, just to convince him that he already has enough to deal with, there is the looming spectre of Barnaby Joyce. It seems inevitable that the unpredictable maverick will succeed the stolid and compliant Warren Truss in the foreseeable future – perhaps within weeks. Turnbull’s new deputy is, by definition, uncontrollable; the only way to get rid of him would be to break the coalition, which is, in the circumstances, unthinkable. Despite all the hype, the Nationals leader will not have all that much power; he is not, as they say, a heartbeat away from the Lodge. But he can be, and almost certainly will be, a bloody nuisance. An amount of boat-rocking will be unavoidable.
All the more reason, then, to limit as far as possible; leave things as they are, try and keep the course steady, and just keep bailing.