The Politics    Monday, July 13, 2015

Early election?

By Sean Kelly

Cracking the PM’s code

In his classic of Australian political history, The End of Certainty, Paul Kelly wrote of the lead-up to the 1987 double-dissolution election:

Hawke reexamined his election timetable. On 9 March Cabinet decided to reintroduce the Australia Card bill, which had already been blocked once in the Senate, in exactly the same form as before – proof that Hawke wanted a double dissolution option.

This morning, Phillip Coorey wrote in the Australian Financial Review that the Abbott government plans to reintroduce two bills that “seek to curb union excess”. He said that by doing so – the bills have already been blocked once – the government wants to give itself the option of a double-dissolution election.

It’s true – as the prime minister said today – that the media likes to “hyperventilate” about the prospect of early elections. But anyone thinking Coorey was overegging the situation need only look back at Paul Kelly’s words, written almost a quarter-century ago.

This is not the same as saying the government is on the edge of actually calling an early election. It may be, but nobody, including the government, can know that yet. Election timing will be dictated by the same thing it always is: whether the government thinks it can win. But it’s certain the Coalition wants the option.

Helpfully, the PM stood up to speak, though only cryptically, allowing journalists to engage in one of their favourite games of “What does he actually mean?”

On this, they disagreed. The Nine News website read “Abbott cool on early election”. The SMH said Abbott was “silent” on double dissolution rumours. Tellingly, Google’s headline for read “Tony Abbott slams early election talk”, taking you to a story headlined “Prime Minister Tony Abbott refuses to rule out double dissolution election”.

Of course, they were all correct – because, to repeat myself, this is all about keeping options ajar. Politics as currently practised would barely be possible were it not thinkable to downplay the likelihood of an option while at the same time actively considering it.

In other words, the PM’s ambiguity, and the resulting ambiguity in news reports, was entirely intentional.

And so while it absolutely is suspicious that Tony Abbott’s sentences were very carefully moulded into the precise shapes necessary to deliver exactly the impression you would want to convey should you be thinking about having an early election, they also may come to naught.

To decipher the Prime Minister’s code:

Can I just say that we’ve had the best fortnight in the life of this Parliament. We’ve just had a fortnight where a lot of legislation was passed, where some $14 billion worth of much-needed savings were realised through sensible decisions at last by the Greens and by the Labor Party to support government initiatives.

Meaning: This government is getting things done, calmly and methodically – when other parties are actually being reasonable then we can achieve things, see?

I don’t want our workplace relations legislation blocked, I want it passed.

Meaning: This is not a political strategy, but an act of good faith, for the sake of a policy outcome about which I sincerely care.

Why would you want to close the Parliament down just when it’s starting to work?

Meaning: I only say this sotto voce, but between you and me this delivers a perfect set-up for when the Senate refuses to pass the union-based legislation (and perhaps pieces of the budget), i.e. “I said in July that the parliament was working well and I wanted to keep working with it. Unfortunately the childish intransigence of Labor and the Greens has now made that impossible.” Convincing, yes?

In my judgment, sensible Labor people, decent working people, are appalled by the revelations in the royal commission and they want to see unionism in the country cleaned up.

These bills are intimately tied up with the union corruption you’ve seen on display – or, sure, implied, if you want to be technical about it – at the Royal Commission, before which you no doubt remember Bill Shorten recently was forced to appear?

Of course, the beauty of the PM’s words is that, should he go further backwards in the polls than he is today, he can refrain from going to an election until next year. But how delightful to have the option! Especially if the Royal Commission has not at that point handed down its final report into unions – which it won’t have done until late this year – allowing the Coalition to argue Shorten is still under a cloud.

It’s probably a smart political move from the PM: maximum flexibility is rarely a bad thing. And right now, after years of revelations about the Health Services Union, it’s probably not a bad time to be fighting an election on the credibility of trade unions.

It would be cynical, of course, but motivations usually aren’t what matter in politics: outcomes are. In 1987, John Howard said:

The Liberal and National parties welcome the opportunity to test the policies and failures of the Hawke Government. The announcement we have just heard has nothing to do with national reconstruction, or Senate obstruction, or the long-term interests of this country. It has everything to do with supreme political cynicism.

Howard was probably right. Hawke won anyway.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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