Malcolm Turnbull Should Avoid The Seductive Trap Of An Early Election

Early elections are not a good idea.

Yes, they look very democratic. Who could object to a government seeking the approval of the voters, even if not strictly necessary? But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that early elections are a seductive trap.

Julia Gillard held an early election in 2010. She wanted voter approval for Labor’s leadership change. But by doing so she squandered any hope of exploiting her status as the incumbent prime minister, and nearly lost her first term government.

Kevin Rudd called an election well before he had to in 2013, well before he had re-established himself as the rightful leader, and well before he had rebuilt any semblance of Labor’s economic credentials. Needless to say, Rudd lost.

So one wonders why on earth people are recommending the Turnbull Government go to an election sooner rather than later. In Monday’s Australian, Phillip Hudson had an extended piece saying that Turnbull was being urged to call a poll for Valentine’s Day 2016.

It’s true that with an early election Turnbull could take advantage of his current popularity. Just like Gillard and Rudd took advantage of theirs.

Over the weekend, News Limited papers revealed Treasury is actively considering a 15 per cent GST in return for significant income tax cuts.

It is widely believed that any major tax changes would have to be taken to an election first. It’s not clear to me why that is. It seems to assume that governments these days are incapable of explaining why what they want to do needs to be done.

In fact, the so-called reform ‘mandate’ provided by an election is ambiguous. We cannot know why elections are won or lost. Perhaps an election win means the public loves the policies of the winning party, or perhaps it just dislikes the leader of the losers.

Nevertheless, the idea that reform has to be taken to an election first is the received wisdom, and governments are governed by nothing but received wisdom.

This speculation of an early election illustrates one of the Turnbull Government’s biggest challenges. In the next 12 to 18 months, Malcolm Turnbull is going to have to navigate the politics of a budget, a general election, a plebiscite (same-sex marriage), and possibly a constitutional referendum (Indigenous recognition). In each, Turnbull will be fighting the shadows of decisions left to him by Tony Abbott.

Indeed, of all these, an election is probably the easiest to navigate, given Bill Shorten’s lacklustre poll performance. As things look now, a second term for the Coalition is almost certain.

Turnbull didn’t want a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. But he has some interesting options here. Turnbull could bring the plebiscite forward and hold it before the next election. Surely doing so would not be breaching faith with voters who voted the Coalition into government in 2013. After all, Turnbull would be asking for permission from those voters for the change in policy. That’s the beauty of a plebiscite. It’s hard to argue against on democratic grounds.

Tony Abbott thought he was being clever when he called for a gay marriage plebiscite. In fact, when he did so he threw away the conservatives’ strongest card: with the current make-up of the Parliament, a conscience vote might well have been unsuccessful. A lost parliamentary vote would have delayed the issue for at least a few more years.

Opinion polls show consistently high support for same-sex marriage. When the plebiscite date is announced, gay and lesbian couples might as well book their wedding venues.

The Indigenous recognition referendum is much more complicated. Turnbull is sending it off to yet another committee.

Phillip Hudson raised the possibility of a poll combining the gay marriage plebiscite, Indigenous recognition, and a half-Senate election, to be held perhaps in the second half of next year or early 2017.

But such an omnibus poll plan assumes this new committee will decide on a recognition question that is so uncontroversial it is guaranteed to be successful. Holding a controversial recognition question at the same time as the gay marriage plebiscite will risk both failing. Turnbull surely knows this. So far there is no sign of a consensus question. Don’t count on there ever being one.

The final electoral complexity is the May 2016 budget. It will be the first major test of Scott Morrison’s economic skills. It needs to symbolise a new approach to getting the budget back to surplus, while at the same time maintaining the Coalition’s mantra of “lower, simpler, fairer taxes”. It needs to bear the load of the Turnbull Government’s economic reform agenda. It can’t be the public relations disaster that was 2014.

With all this pressure, you can see why some in the Government would be eager to get an election out of the way before the budget was handed down. Budgets have winners and losers. But doing so would be a mistake. Governments are elected to govern. As the experiences of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard demonstrated, voters punish election timing cynicism.