Game On: Turnbull Sets Stage For Double-Dissolution If Crossbench Refuses To Pass Anti-Union ABCC Bill


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will bring the budget forward a week and recall Parliament on April 18, in a bid to pass legislation designed to curb ‘union thuggery’ on building sites, setting the stage for a double dissolution election on July 2.

“The time for playing games is over,” Turnbull said at a surprise press conference this morning.

“Today I called on his Excellency the Governor General to advise him to recall both houses of Parliament on April 18 to consider and passage of the Australian Building and Construction Commission bills and the Registered Organisation bill, and he has made a proclamation to that effect.”

The government has long threatened to call a full election if the Senate refuses to pass legislation to resurrect the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was knocked back in August last year.

The Howard-era building industry watchdog is loathed by the union movement which would create special laws for the building industry alone and give the Commissioner extraordinary powers to interrogate workers and union officials.

Speaking on the ABC, election analyst Antony Green said that by forcing the ABCC bill back before the Senate, Turnbull would have an unambiguous election trigger at his disposal if the laws were not passed.

By bringing the Budget forward, Turnbull would also afford his government the time needed to pass an appropriations bill extending supply and ensuring the government did not run out of money during an election period.

The Budget had previously been slated for May 10, and Parliament was not supposed to sit again until that date.

The announcement sets-up a showdown in the Senate and triggers a nervous wait for the union movement. With the Greens and the Coalition combining to pass Senate voting reform, a double-dissolution would see crossbenchers not due to face re-election until 2018 forced to recontest a full Senate election without the advantage of preference swapping arrangements that have previously enabled tiny primary votes to be pooled by micro-parties.

In 2013, the Motoring Enthusiasts Party’s Ricky Muir was elected to the Senate on a primary vote of just 0.51 per cent thanks to such deals.

On the other hand, the full dissolution of the Senate may advantage crossbenchers with a higher primary vote, as the quota required to gain a position would drop to just 7.7 per cent of the state-wide vote.

Green suggested this may be of particular assistance to Nick Xenophon, whose Nick Xenophon Group won a primary vote just shy of 25 per cent in South Australia in 2013, and would likely pick up extra seats in a full Senate election.

The ABCC legislation is bitterly oppose by Labor, the Greens, and the union movement. The body was initially established by the Howard government in 2005, but replaced by the Fair Work Building and Construction Inspectorate in 2012.

Tony Abbott vowed to reintroduce the ABCC shortly before the 2013 election, but  the government has been unable to garner enough support in the Senate. In February, a government attempt to reintroduce the ABCC was frustrated when crossbenchers Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang, Jacqui Lambie and John Madigan, who combined with the Greens and Labor to send it back to committee.

NSW Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm indicated he was likely to support the legislation, though said he had concerns about reversals of the onus of proof and the right to silence the laws entailed. Leyonhjelm said he could also be tempted to back the bills if the government was happy to “sweeten the pot”, potentially by supporting his own IR legislation.

Lazarus, who left the Palmer United Party to form his own political group after being elected to the Senate in 2013, said he would support the bill if it was amended to effectively become a federal equivalent to NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, an unlikely prospect.

“While there are issues in unions there are also issues in banks. There are also issues in politics and with politicians,” he said.

With the threat of a double-dissolution now thrown down, the government requires the support of six of the eight crossbenchers to pass the laws and head-off a July election.

Additional reporting by Thom Mitchell.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.