At last, a decision – three decisions, in fact. Parliament will be called back on April 18 to debate the Building and Construction Commission Bill; the budget will be brought forward to May 3; and a double dissolution will take place, inevitably, it would seem, on July 2.
But there is still something missing: an election platform. Of course there will be much sturm und drang over the ABCC, industrial relations generally, the unions and in particular the CMFEU and the ALP and Bill Shorten. And while this will undoubtedly resonate with the conservative columnists, there is no real indication that the public is wildly interested.
And even if they can be geed up by a fierce and well-funded media blitz, the rage cannot be sustained for a long, overlong, campaign. Negativity, a la Tony Abbott, will not win: you just might get away with it in opposition, but not in government. Turnbull will have to find something positive to say, and while he will certainly find plenty of words, the record to date suggests that the substance will be, at best, flimsy.
Almost everything, it seems, is off the table, including what was to have been the centrepiece – the treasurer’s raison d’etre: tax cuts to repair bracket creep for the middle income earners. There is no money, because to find any is regarded as too difficult, too risky.
So what is our maestro of suspense, our ringmaster of uncertainty, going to do to inspire and excite the jaded voters?
Even the minor changes envisaged for superannuation are now being questioned: Tony Abbott has started his own campaign against what he calls a seniors tax, to go with the so-called housing tax which might have been used to curb the excesses on negative gearing. Indeed any tax, except possibly a rise in tobacco exercise (which Abbott designates the workers’ tax) and a trim to superannuation concessions (the seniors tax) are, it seems, out of the question.
And spending cuts, given the recent history of the 2014 budget, are going to have to be modest to the point of invisibility. Something can no doubt be scrambled together by May 3, but it is unlikely to be impressive.
So what is our maestro of suspense, our ringmaster of uncertainty, going to do to inspire and excite the jaded voters? And make no mistake, they are thoroughly pissed off with the drawn out shenanigans that culminated in the last, unedifying, week. The senate reforms were finally passed, which is a good thing; but the cost to all concerned was considerable, and may yet to be counted.
The coalition was engaged in a headlong rush to get through its senate reforms with the aim of securing a double dissolution – more than a whiff of opportunism, not to mention the hope of a short- to medium-term gain in seats for pure electoral advantage.
The Greens were willing to truckle to their old adversary; as so often their motives were muddled, but they obviously thought that in taking that strange, almost perverse stand, it would do them no electoral harm. The micro-parties on the cross bench were fighting for survival – the rest was hollow justification. Nick Xenophon, of course, was simply being Nick Xenophon.
And the Labor Party was unabashedly shameful – and simultaneously, shameless. Whatever the reasons for the political mud fight that developed, the arguments for changing the voting system to inject greater transparency and democracy are irrefutable, and until recently the ALP did not attempt to refute them – in fact, it championed them.
There was no real attempt to take the high ground; it was all about the supposed threat that the coalition might gain enough seats to win the Senate in its own right, if not at the next election, then in the one after.
Well, it might, although real psephologists (of which the unreconstructed apparatchik Sam Dastyari and his numbers men are in very short supply) regard that outcome as unlikely. But if that turned out to be the case, it would be because the electors – the people – wanted it to be that way, and if a fairer and more honest electoral system made it easier for them to do so, then so it goes. The changes will not make the senate perfect – there are those who argue that the only way to do that is to abolish it altogether. But they will make it more honest, fairer and more democratic, which is a considerable improvement.
But the crossbenchers have sworn a terrible vengeance on his government if it gets even the ghost of a chance and if there are any survivors – and there well may be – the whole exercise could prove not merely counterproductive, but at best a trifle Pyrrhic, especially given the likelihood that Turnbull will lose more than handful of seats and still face the Abottistas and their conservative rump.
So to solve the coming campaign will require more than mere agility – it will require conviction. And that, it would seem, is a commodity severely lacking within the current cabinet, and most particularly, and disappointingly, within the bowels of our pusillanimous prime minister.
Turnbull’s abject surrender to the zealots of the hard right and the bed wetters spooked by the febrile Murdoch press last week against the Safe Schools program was so craven it must raise doubts about whether he can manage even the slightest pressure.
And the prime minister, having initially backed the program, gave in without a whimper. The program was not, as the review initiated by Turnbull’s education minister Simon Birmingham had suggested, tweaked, modified: it was, as the rabid George Christensen gloated, gutted – substantially destroyed. And the signal that has sent to the voters who will soon have to concentrate their minds on the long election campaign, will be that demagoguery, naked populism, rules.
So having at last crossed his Rubicon as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull will have to find his mojo and his moxie. The retreats, the dithering, the confusion and above all the timorousness cannot continue. Good government – or at the very least credible leadership – starts now. And a it will have to continue through the next 103 (count them) gruelling days, and that’s just the election campaign. Good luck.