Turnbull’s Only Real Option Was Bluff And Bravado

If Malcolm Turnbull is bluffing about a double dissolution election, it’s a very committed bluff. A dramatic bluff. A bold bluff.

First, the Government had to pass the changes to the Senate. No point holding a double dissolution to clear out the Senate crossbench if that election would just throw up even more minor party crossbenchers. Lest the substance of this change be dismissed, consider that in order to hold a double dissolution which would result in the desired outcome, the Government had to change the voting system itself.

Second, Turnbull has asked the Governor-General to recall Parliament in April to consider the Australian Building and Construction Commission Bill – one of the pieces of legislation the Prime Minister would like to use as a trigger for the double dissolution. Constitutionally, the Governor-General can call sessions of Parliament. The Senate is less likely to seriously fight the Queen’s representative on a scheduling matter.

Third, the budget is being brought forward one week. As Antony Green explains, a double dissolution cannot be held within six months of the end of a term. This means a double dissolution must be called on May 11 at the latest. But the government needs to pass a budget each year for the machinery of government to keep ticking along – currently scheduled for May 10. One day isn’t a lot to pass budget bills, so the budget day is being moved to May 3.

One estimate has that small change of budget schedule costing one million dollars. I imagine we’re about to find out how much the April sitting of Parliament is going to cost.

Turnbull says if the crossbench passes the ABCC bill in April, then no double dissolution will be necessary. But that’s hardly the point. One column in The Age has described Monday’s double dissolution threat as “a colossal gamble the PM had to take”. “Had to”? Cleaning up union corruption is legitimate and necessary – even urgent – but not quite the emergency that calling a double dissolution implies. Rather the “had to” refers to a sense that the Government needs a narrative. It needs a reason for being. It needs to make a bold political move.

The media loves bold moves. Double dissolution gamesmanship fits the bill. It’s true that the outbreaks of high drama that have characterised Australian politics since Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd have also been accompanied by hand-wringing about the decline of political stability and The End of ReformTM. But the very same press gallery has been damning Turnbull for weeks about the Government’s apparent purposelessness.

Tax reform has been on-again and off-again – characterised by half-hearted attempts at encouraging debate and subsequent backdowns. Part of this has been some of the transactions costs of the leadership change. The discussions about negative gearing, increasing the GST, and superannuation tax concessions were all started by the Abbott government. But the drift made a mockery of Turnbull’s claims to be a brilliant communicator. The new Prime Minister did not usher in the end of politics after all: just another stage of what the commentariat portray as our era of political crisis.

In this context a double dissolution looks like cut-through … great optics … agenda setting … finding a narrative. Double dissolution elections are rarely about the bills they’re purportedly called to pass. The Australia Card Bill – technically the subject of the 1987 double dissolution – didn’t even go to a vote when Bob Hawke failed to win a majority in the Senate.

Rather, if this election is like any other election, it will be at its core about the economy. Politicians like to talk about their superior “economic management”. But as I have argued on The Drum before, rather than being managers of the economy, they are in truth the economy’s hostages – riding waves of international capital flows and iron ore prices and financial market hiccups that small economies like ours can barely influence.

Take a step back and this is a defining feature of Australia’s political culture. We push against events we cannot control. We “take stands” on ground which will never be stable. Australian governments can only facilitate change. They cannot direct it or prevent it. So boldness – as brazen as possible – is the currency of Canberra. It unites Turnbull’s “ideas boom” with Tony Abbott’s promise to shirtfront Vladimir Putin. Confidence is a substitute for the control they will never have.

On Monday afternoon, Bill Shorten said “Mr Turnbull has a plan for his re-election, he just doesn’t have a plan for Australia.”

But in truth, an election is about the only thing he can plan for.