Why Turnbull Will Need His Red Speedos To Win This Marathon Campaign

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ANALYSIS: Without a positive agenda of his own, entering the race on equal footing, the Prime Minister has little choice but to attack, attack, attack, writes Ben Eltham.

And it’s on.

With the rejection by the Senate last night of a government bill to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the trigger was created for a double-dissolution election.

And it didn’t take long for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to exercise his itchy finger.

Turnbull held a media conference this morning to announce that he would ask Governor-General Peter Cosgrove for a July 2 double-dissolution election.

Welcome to the 75-day election campaign.

In his presser, Turnbull was at pains to pretend a July 2 election wasn’t a forgone conclusion. But of course it is. “After the budget,” he told journalists, “I will be asking the Governor-General to dissolve both houses of Parliament for an election which I expect to be held on July 2nd.” Not much wriggle room there.

In truth, this is exactly what Turnbull wanted. Once Turnbull tweeted on March 20 that “the time for playing games is over ” and announced his intention to bring Parliament to debate the ABCC, he has focused unswervingly on an early election.

It was pretty clear that the only result the government wanted was for the Senate to reject the ABCC bill a second time. Indeed, it didn’t even bother to table legislation for today’s sitting of the House of Representatives.

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House of Representatives agenda, 19 April 2016. Image: Alice Workman.

 

There’s nothing wrong, constitutionally at least, with bringing back the entire Parliament simply to get the Senate to vote down a bill the government wants to fail. But it does speak to a government that has consistently struggled to put forward a positive policy agenda.

Presumably the government wanted the ABCC debate to focus on the bogeyman of militant trade unions. If so, the abrupt decision by the Senate to vote down the bill with little debate rather cruelled the Coalition’s intentions. As usual for the Turnbull administration, once stymied, there was no real Plan B.

The government could have used this sitting week on any number of policy goals. It could have brought forward legislation it says it wants passed. It could have debated important issues. It could have taken the fight up to Labor on signature challenges, such as Labor’s call for a royal commission into the banking sector. Or it could simply have got on with “governing”, as Turnbull insists he is doing.

Instead, the House of Representatives was left to twiddle its thumbs for several hours, voting down several Labor stunts, like Anthony Albanese’s private members bill on high speed rail. All in all, not the best use of the government’s time.

With the double dissolution trigger secured and the date for the election nailed down, the parties can start their election campaign.

For the Coalition, you can see the seeds of a whirlwind being sown.

For a start, there’s the budget. There can’t be much upside for the government in a document that will certainly deliver a serious deficit, and little in the way of tax cuts or savings. In contrast, the risks of a bad budget are significant. Should an accident-prone government slash further at public services, or reward unpopular corporate mates with tax cuts, it could set the tone for much of the rest of the election campaign.

And that’s just the policy risk. As Wayne Swan discovered, budgets can be personally unforgiving occasions. With a rookie Treasurer at the helm, a bad gaffe or a bumbling performance can’t be discounted. If Morrison stumbles, there won’t be anywhere for him to hide.

Assuming the government navigates the budgetary shoals, that just gets us to the election campaign proper. We can assume the Coalition will pull out all stops in what will now be a brutal campaign of attrition.

But what is the government planning to campaign on? Ten weeks from election day, we still don’t really know.

Is Turnbull planning to campaign on his personal charisma? The time for that was last year, when he was riding high on a personal honeymoon. The gloss has worn off since – the polls just keep heading downwards. Worse, one sure way to dull the sparkle of even the brightest political persona is to deaden voters with a long  campaign. And yet, here we are.

Is the Coalition planning to campaign on its record? No doubt it will champion some of its achievements, but there are problems here too. For a start, the government’s best-known accomplishments are really those of Tony Abbott: tough border security and abolishing carbon pricing. Turnbull can hardly celebrate “stopping the boats”, even if he wanted to, without falling prey to Labor’s attack that he is simply Tony Abbott in a better suit.

Meanwhile, Turnbull’s own record in this government is decidedly mixed. While retaining his personal popularity, he also presided over the train wreck of the National Broadband Network.

Could the Coalition campaign on policy? This was undoubtedly the plan over summer, as Turnbull readied his party to fight this year’s election on tax reform.

If the government had stuck with its plan to raise the GST and return big income tax cuts, Morrison would have had a big picture narrative to present in Tuesday week’s budget. And the Coalition would have been able to say that it stood for something important.

But the government walked away from tax reform in February, scared off by poor polling and panicked backbenchers. Without a tax reform plan, and without a decent policy agenda, the government is therefore going into the election campaign with little in the way of a positive platform.

By a process of elimination, then, we’ve arrived at the obvious strategy for the Coalition this election. They will go negative. For the Coalition strategists, it probably appears as though they have no other option. In fact, they do: it’s just that they’ve closed off many of those options through errors and self-inflicted wounds.

Under the leadership of Tony Abbott, this was at least playing to his strengths. Run negative, attack Shorten, attack unions, attack on the cost of living, attack, attack, attack. But can Malcolm Turnbull pull off a negative campaign? How will he and his front-bench perform across a gruelling 11-week campaign?

In contrast to Abbott, Turnbull is not by inclination a negative politician. He’s a big picture guy, at his happiest when sketching broad brushstroke visions of a sunnier future ahead. But Turnbull hasn’t done the hard yards to actually come up with a vision. The sizzle is there, but not the steak.

It’s a measure of the corner Turnbull has painted himself into that we enter the election campaign talking about issues most voters simply don’t care about: construction unions, owner-driver truckies, the ABCC.

In contrast, Labor goes into the campaign with a suite of costed policies, some well-honed campaign pledges, and with a surprisingly united team behind Bill Shorten. The warning signs for the government should be clear.

With both major parties starting at 50-50 in two-party preferred terms, the marathon campaign will decide who wins government. It will be a fascinating and exhausting 75 days.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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