The Lines Of Battle Have Been Drawn

21/03/2016 11:53 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Andrew Meares/Fairfax Media

It's on. PM Malcolm Turnbull has drawn up the lines of battle, pinned his ultimatum to the wall -- "pass my Australian Building and Construction Commission bills, or face an early election."

Turnbull brought the hammer down on Monday morning. We'd been expecting it for some time, but nobody seemed prepared for it today. Media and analysts had been spit-balling ideas and strategy for the oft-discussed double dissolution election for some time, but nobody expected it to come today, in this way.

The PM clearly laid out his terms. The parliament, having just risen last Friday for what they thought was a seven-week break, will be called back on April 18. They'll have three weeks to consider the ABCC bills, but if they don't pass them, Turnbull will ask the Governor-General to dissolve the parliament for a double dissolution election on July 2. The federal budget, held on the second Tuesday of May every year since 1994, will come forward a week to May 3. The roadmap is clear, the PM says -- "do things my way, or else."

What is less clear is how Turnbull's opponents will react. Labor and crossbench senators have a clear choice; cave in and pass the ABCC bills they have already rejected, or face a double dissolution election. Here is where personal interest may come into conflict with political fortitude, as while the 150 members of the House of Representatives were going to be up for re-election at some point this year -- whether at a July early election, or a regularly-timed election in September or October -- only half the senate was due to face the voters again.

Under a normal election, the other half of the senate would still have three years before going back to the polls. By going to a double dissolution, those 38 senators essentially forfeit those three years, and no doubt some of those 38 will not be returned. Those senators know that. Might the imminent loss of their lucrative jobs sway their votes? Might the lure of keeping their job for another three years push them to support the ABCC bills, to avoid a double dissolution?

Needless to say, senators probably won't be happy about having their holiday cut in half, and returning to Canberra far earlier than they had planned. Hear that sound? That's the sound of senators calling their travel agents to cancel those overseas airfares and vacation packages.

Then it comes to Labor. The ABCC bills seek to place greater oversight on the building industry and thereby the building and construction unions, a stronghold for Labor membership and strength. It would be unthinkable that Labor would support the ABCC bills, at least without some serious amendments or changes.

The Labor team would likely have been preparing for a July election anyway. Their election planning would likely be well underway. The change of schedule likely wouldn't be too much of a preparation or planning nightmare for them. The more important component of the timing is the polling. After a dream honeymoon period upon his ascension to the Prime Ministership, with a long period of popularity, Turnbull's numbers have been slipping.

The Newspoll released on Monday showed Turnbull's "disapproval" numbers were higher than his "approval" numbers -- hardly the ideal lead-up for an election. Bill Shorten's numbers, always much lower than Turnbull's, have been slowly creeping up as he presents a formidable face as an opponent to Turnbull, and as his Labor team present a series of credible and fleshed-out policies. Labor are bridging the gap on the two-party-preferred vote. The numbers are moving the way of the opposition. That will be some comfort for them, as they face the prospect of a double dissolution.

So what happens next? It's unclear at this early stage. Each side -- the government, the opposition and the crossbenchers -- all have their own motivations for supporting or opposing a double dissolution. We'll wait until the inevitable fireworks of the parliament's early return on April 18 to gauge exactly where our parliamentarians sit on the issue. With the prospect of a double dissolution, formerly a veiled threat, now staring them in the face -- we might see the shifting of some positions.

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