A double dissolution election, scheduled for July 2 was effectively triggered last night after the senate voted down the government’s bill by 36 votes to 34 to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). As the legislation was blocked, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is now in the position to dissolve Parliament and call an election, in order to break the deadlock in the Senate. Officially, the Government cannot call for a double dissolution before the budget is passed down on May 3 and still serve a full three-year term in the next cycle. All indications are, however, that the July 2 election will be officially called after the budget is passed down. Malcolm Turnbull all but confirmed this to be the case on Tuesday morning.
While rare, double dissolution elections are not unprecedented in Australian politics, having occurred on six separate occasions. The last one of these was back in 1987, with the Hawke government being returned to power. By far the most high-profile example of the double dissolution government, however, was the one called by Malcolm Fraser back in 1975 following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam from office.
Calling an early election is a bold strategy from the Government and carries both benefits and risks in terms of their chances of retaining office for a second term. On the one hand, calling an early election will give Labor and the opposition parties less time to prepare for the election. Calling an early election can also reset the political debate and narrative, which has been going against the incumbent government of late. Polls have shown the gap between Liberal and Labor virtually closing, while Turnbull himself has become significantly less popular as Prime Minister than when he first took over 7 months ago. The decline has been a slow, steady one, as I noted in a previous blog piece outlining the issues facing the Turnbull government back in February.
Re-election for the Turnbull government is no mere formality, however. While Turnbull is favoured considerably as preferred Prime Minister over his Labor counterpart Bill Shorten, polls show that the two parties are neck-and-neck in terms of favourability. Importantly, the trend of the polls, especially in recent weeks and months, is favourable towards Labor. Turnbull has largely failed to deliver on his promises of a reform, policy-based agenda since taking over. In order to reverse this trend, the federal budget due in a fortnight will have to show ambition and vision. Any mis-steps, such as perceived unfairness of the budget or a lack of clarity about the purpose and goals of the budget, and Labor will inevitably pounce, damaging the Coalition’s re-election chances.
Despite these issues, the Coalition should still be considered the favourites for retaining government come July 2. On measures such as the overall economy, taxation and debt, Turnbull is more trusted by voters than Shorten. Crucially, Turnbull still has a significant lead over Shorten as preferred Prime Minister. Though voters are less enthusiastic about Turnbull than in previous months, the electorate still has not warmed to Shorten as a potential Prime Minister. There is also the possibility of a hung parliament to consider, with neither Liberal or Labor having a clear majority to govern. The tie between Liberal and Labor in terms of preferred party is one reason to suggest this might be the case. Another reason, particularly given the election will likely be a double dissolution, will be the probable increase in crossbench senators from the likes of the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, taking crucial numbers in the senate away from the major parties. In any case, the election will be a tightly contested one, a scenario thought virtually impossible just a few short months ago.