It comes down to eight. The eight crossbench senators hold the keys to when a federal election will be held. If they support the Prime Minister's bills around the Australian Building and Construction Commission, we avoid an early election and most things carry on as usual; but unless six of the eight support the bills, we go to the polls on July 2 for a rare double dissolution.
Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, Nick Xenophon, Bob Day, John Madigan, Dio Wang, David Leyonhjelm and Ricky Muir are the most pivotal political people in the country right now. Only one has given explicit support for the bills, two have come out strongly against the legislation; leaving five up in the air.
It's been a whirlwind 24 hours since Turnbull made his bombshell announcement, sparking the country's political classes into action just as they were settling in for what they expected to be a long, relatively quiet period until the federal budget. Hopes of a holiday or at least a bit of a rest before the election were dashed; parliament will resume early to consider the ABCC bills, a double dissolution election will occur if the bills don't pass, and the budget is coming a week early.
All the major players have been out pushing their messages, speaking for or against Turnbull's 'House of Cards'-esque political manoeuvre. Here's what the big guns and the pivotal pawns are saying:
The PM's announcement framed the early election and budget entirely around the ABCC bills, which seek to re-establish the watchdog for the building industry.
"Well this is a very important economic reform. We're getting on with the business of Government. And the time has come for the Senate who have been given the opportunity of an additional three sitting weeks to deal with these bills and pass them."
"We strongly urge [Senate crossbenchers] to support this legislation as we have done for some considerable time now."
After the PM's announcement, he appeared on ABC's 7.30 program with Leigh Sales. Asked whether Australians "have heard of the ABCC, let alone care" about the bills which the election and foreseeable political future now hinge on, Turnbull was quick to defend his framing of the narrative:
"I think many Australians, many if not most Australians are well aware of the level of lawlessness and corruption and waste in the construction industry. The Heydon Royal Commission set it out very graphically, if we had reason to doubt it, there is about a hundred officials of the CFMEU and members of the CFMEU facing court proceedings at the moment... I believe we are right in saying there should be a special regulator."
Opposition leader Shorten, former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, unsurprisingly was on the offensive over Turnbull's plans for an early election over union-based issues. Speaking on Sunrise on Tuesday, he said:
"Labor won't be supporting the Government's measures. So, I suspect in fact, I am pretty sure, we will be having an election on 2 July in 103 days time."
"I don't think that we should be creating laws where construction workers, building workers are governed by one set of laws and everyone else is governed by another set of laws."
Despite Turnbull's recent approval ratings on the slide, Shorten is still far behind the PM in popularity stakes. Shorten brushed that off as a factor in an early election:
"Absolutely, we can win. And it's going to come down to who has the positive policies. I look forward to the fact that over the next 103 days, we will outline our positive plans."
The former PM has been a thorn in Turnbull's side for some time, giving commentary and writing opinion pieces deemed unhelpful to Turnbull and the government. With an election now on the horizon, it was asked of Abbott -- currently overseas in the Ukraine -- how he would act in the election campaign. He made it about himself, telling Sky News on Monday:
"The Turnbull government is seeking election fundamentally on the record of the Abbott government. Stopping the boats, finalising the free trade agreements, our strong national security policy"
“It’s very easy for me to campaign on the election of a Turnbull government because the Turnbull government is running on the Abbott government’s record. It’s a very strong record.”
Asked about Abbott's comments and whether his input would help or harm the government, on Tuesday Turnbull told 3AW Radio:
“It depends on what he says, frankly. Whether it’s a plus or minus depends entirely on the nature of his contribution,” he said. “I hope that he will be supportive and he’s indicating that he will be, so that will be good.”
The Senate crossbench
Realistically, the prospect of an early election comes down to the eight independent Senators; Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus, Nick Xenophon, Bob Day, John Madigan, Dio Wang, David Leyonhjelm and Ricky Muir. Turnbull needs the support of six of the eight to pass the ABCC bills; if he doesn't get six, the bills won't have the required support, which the PM said will motivate him to ask the Governor-General to dissolve parliament and have an election.
At this stage, it seems the required support is not incoming. With the crossbench already viciously hostile to the Coalition government over their ramming through of the controversial Senate voting reforms -- which, essentially, will see most of the crossbench lose their seats under reforms that will make it harder for independents and members of microparties to be elected -- it seems unlikely Turnbull will be able to sweet-talk the very same people he just single-handedly put out of work. Lambie, Lazarus and Muir voted against the bills last time, and all three have either rubbished the laws or said they want significant changes in exchange for their vote.
Senator Day said he would support the ABCC bills, but gave little chance his crossbench colleagues would follow his lead. He told Sky News that the PM's announcement was "too clever by half":
"Had the government been a little bit more patient last year, it perhaps could've got them over the line."
"I don't see any point in me trying to lobby them ... the events of last week put paid to that sort of action."
"They won't get the ABCC through and they won't clear out the minor parties and independents from the Senate - they'll get neither of the things they are after."
Lambie, speaking on Q&A on Monday, flatly rejected supporting the bills:
"I will be voting 'No' to the ABCC, I'll be quite honest like that."
"I will not be blackmailed, I will not have a gun held to my head."
Xenophon helped the government pass the voting reforms, but has not yet explicitly given his position on the ABCC bills. He says he would support the bills if amendments were added, but it's unclear whether his arm could be twisted on the bills in their original form. On Monday, he said:
"It's a very nifty and cunning manoeuvre on the part of the PM but I expect it's going to cause fireworks in the Senate."
Leyonhjelm said he could be persuaded into supporting the legislation, if amendments were added, but claimed he wouldn't be strong-armed:
"If it's a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, then I'm going to leave it."
Lazarus, too, wants changes in support for his vote; he wants a national building industry watchdog, not the ABCC as it would stand in the current legislation, which he calls "garbage":
"I want to sleep at night and if I voted for the ABCC in its current form, I wouldn't be able to."
Dio Wang abstained from voting on the ABCC last time it appeared before the Senate, but said he could be swayed with some changes to the legislation. He told the Australian Financial Review:
"I think my consideration on the bill would never be contingent upon whether there is going to be a double dissolution."
Madigan has said, "I have no confidence the government intends to negotiate in good faith for the passage of these bills", while Muir said he would look at supporting the ABCC bills if amendments were added.