The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart.
Well, from Canberra at least; but as the politicians scurry back to their winter lairs they are unlikely to enjoy a relaxing winter hibernation. Their minds will be already focussing on the prospect of the next election and the thinking of their forceful but frequently erratic leader: will he or won’t he?
The theories and rumours are already well away, and in fact have been for several months. The recovery in the government’s polling – not yet positive, but clearly on the way – and the steroidal performance of Abbott himself, combine with the decline of an increasingly unconvincing opposition and the beleaguered Bill Shorten are encouraging the belief that even if the times are far from ideal, they are probably just about as good as they will get, and it would be foolish – even reckless – to run for another 15 months or so.
In the coming spring, a young backbencher’s fancy will turn to thoughts of a short, sharp campaign, preferably conflating the fear of terrorism and the hope of economic bounce and after that the future can look after itself. And this is also the feeling – the speculation, anyway – that haunts the bleak and echoing corridors of parliament house, where gallery troglodytes with too much time on their hands are turning to their own favourite pastime.
The only certainty is that Abbott and his spinners will keep the opposition and the public guessing as long as possible
Reluctantly, they have had to give up the idea of fantasising over leadership change; barring catastrophic accidents (always a possibility but by definition utterly unpredictable) Tony Abbott is safe from serious dissent in the party room, and Shorten is unrollable, not that there is anyone game to roll him or capable of doing the job.
And that leaves them with the other time tested and reliable fall back to fill their columns: an early election. Some of them have been talking about it at least until the last budget, but things really started to kick along last week, with stories about candidates’ photos being updated to include the formidable visage of their prime minister.
Six months ago many of them wanted as little association with their captain and even with their party as they could decently avoid, but now it appears that they – or at least the PM’s propaganda machine, which is essentially the same thing – now regard him as a positive. This was seen a sure sign that an election was in the offing,
And from then on the familiar rituals are falling into place. First, of course, there have been the fervent and virtuous denials from Abbott and his ministers: an early election? Not even in contemplation. We were elected to serve the people for three years, and that is what we will do. To go early would disrupt the steady progress of all we have achieved and still plan to achieve. We will complete our full term, no ifs and no buts … unless, of course, there are extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances …
But rather than being viewed as reassured, relaxed and comfortable, this avowal is seen as just another promise, and one of the most malleable of all. And it will soon be driven into confusion by a spate of stories, some plausible, some simply wrong.
There will be accounts of advertising being booked, electoral funds allocated, school halls traditionally used for polling reserved. Ministers will curtail or truncate overseas travel and the PM himself will redouble a hectic schedule that includes as many of the marginal seats as possible. Photo opportunities, of which there are already a plethora, will crowd out the sporting and social pages. And as a result of all this waffle, business will complain that the constant uncertainty is harming the economy and the voters will just want to get the bloody thing over with.
And so, finally, the Prime Minister will announce, more in sorrow than with triumph, that all the speculation (of which he, of course, is in no way responsible – perish the thought) must end, and in the interests of the nation he will reluctantly hurtle off to Yarralumla and pull the trigger, after which it will be mysteriously revealed that his government and party machine are completely prepared – have been for weeks, in fact – for the conflict ahead.
All of this presupposes that Abbott wants an early election, which he doesn’t – he would much rather indulge himself in office for as long as possible, indefinitely in fact. But the harsh reality is that he may not have much choice. The next budget is going to be pretty horrible, whoever is in power.
The vote-buying money has simply run out, and there is no real chance of a sudden windfall arriving. Joe Hockey’s May handouts are already coming to an end, which means that both business and consumer investment is likely to slow down – perhaps even go backwards. It will be hard enough to find a few pork barrels for the always voracious marginal seats to get an election campaign going; the idea of a traditional pre-election splurge is out of the question. And this means that the end of this year or the start of next is effectively Abbott’s deadline; the only real question is which.
An early election is always a risky business—just ask Malcolm Fraser. By going early in 1977 he retained a huge majority but by trying to catch Bill Hayden with his pants down in 1983 he was suddenly confronted with a fully-dressed Bob Hawke; end of story. Abbott is not, by nature a gambler; a ruthless fighter, certainly, but he has always preferred to have the odds firmly on his side.
At this stage, they are moving in his direction. He would be silly not to run with the tide – but then, he is Tony Abbott. He may yet try and bluff his way to a full term. The only certainty is that he and his spinners will keep the opposition and the public – and even his own troops — guessing as long as possible, in the hope that money will fall from the skies, or better still, the forces of ISIS will indeed come after us.
Abbott is not too worried; he will rely on his own protection, either human or divine. And he just might need it.