Thanks for those Senate reforms, Mr Prime Minister. You wouldn’t believe how keen I am to mark the boxes and signal my unhappiness that the party of alleged conservatives is now led by, well, you. A Labor government would be terrible, but yours would be worse
The prospect of a July 2 Double Dissolution (D-D) election is one I welcome. I will say why in a moment. Before doing so, though, notice that it is far from certain that there will in fact be a D-D election. Two things have to happen first. To start, the Senate has again for a second time ‘to fail to pass’ the ABCC (Australian Building and Construction Commission) Bill that Mr. Turnbull has decided to make the centre-piece of any such election.
Now, as things stand, it is clear that Labor and the Greens, neither of which can be described as wholeheartedly in favour of bringing a bit of light and transparency to the way unions operate, will vote against this Bill. That leaves the crossbenchers. Mr. Turnbull needs six of eight to vote in favour for the Bill to pass. And one delicious side-story to this saga is the extent to which self-interest is surely pushing these independents to consider voting to pass the Bill. Cometh a D-D and goeth, for them, the big salary, the obsequious staff, the prestige, the fawning ABC interview (provided such an interview does damage to Mr. Abbott or anyone who holds a small government, Hobbesian, conservative view) and more. The temptation to rationalise away their opposition for the perks and baubles of Senatorial life will be mighty hard to resist.
Indeed, that was what Mr. Turnbull hoped for when he made the threat. Sure, a few of these crossbenchers will surely get re-elected under the newly enacted Senate voting system – think Nick Xenophon and probably Jackie Lambie – and so the self-interest calculations won’t affect them. But it surely will come into play with libertarian David Leyonhjelm, and with all the Palmer Disunited (and disaffected) detritus. And the guy who likes cars. And Family First’s Bob Day. So will it be principle or self-interest, conceding straight off that when it comes to the powerful call of personal self-interest most people can find a way to present it as acting on principle – even to themselves.
So maybe the ABCC Bill will pass in the end. But maybe it won’t. You’d be brave to bet on the outcome, though as I said, the initial noises from the crossbenchers are that it won’t pass.
That throws the spotlight over to Malcolm. ‘This is the Greatest Time to Be a Prime Minister in Australia’s History’ Turnbull. Having issued the challenge and thrown down the gantlet it would surely be politically daft to balk if the bluff were called. Can you picture it? The Senate fails to pass the ABCC and Mr. Turnbull says, ‘Actually, I was just kidding. No D-D to see here folks. Go back to what you were doing. Just keeping all my options on the table.’ Surely the political embarrassment is too great to chance and he would have no choice but to call the D-D.
So then what? Well, we’d be looking at a July 2 election date and an official campaign of over seven weeks — 15 weeks if you include the preliminary and unofficial de facto campaign already underway. Those sort of lengthy campaigns tend not to benefit the governments who engineered them. Ask Mr. Hawke. Ask Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose recent mauling in the polls came after a near record long election campaign, with the conservative’s polls declining the longer the campaign dragged on. Extended campaigns are a big, big risk.
We will also get to try out the new Senate voting system in any July 2 election. Personally, I think the new voting system – with the Group Voting Ticket now gone – is democratically better than what it replaced. But I would have gone a lot further, maybe getting rid of all ‘above the line’ voting. Or, better still, going back to the Senate voting system we had till 1949, one which hurts all small parties (most noticeably the Greens) and not just the independents. The fact is, however, much this is a theoretical improvement as far as voting systems go, it also seems very likely to entrench the Greens in the Senate as the chamber’s veto-wielding third force. Imagine that? Future Labor governments will get most everything they want through the Upper House – as the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd monstrosities did under the old system – and yet future Coalition governments are likely to need the Greens. Could that be intentional? I couldn’t possibly comment.
Why do I welcome the prospect of a vote in July? Because I want to register my disgust with the 54 Liberal MPs who took out a first-term Prime Minister and indulged in the worst sort of Labor-style shenanigans. I want to have my say as regards the decision to put into office the most left wing Liberal Prime Minister probably ever. I want to indicate that there are some things voters need to reject, for the long-term benefit of the party and country, even if it has pretty awful short-term consequences.
So bring it on, my crazy crossbench curmudgeons. Bring it on!
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline