Just over two weeks ago the Senate voted to block the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill for the second time, ensuring that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can now seek an early double dissolution election.
Turnbull’s election strategy is risky. If the polls are a reliable barometer, he is already facing electoral headwinds. The latest Newspoll reveals that the Labor Party enjoys an outright majority of 51 percent on a two party preferred basis. This does not auger well given that voters have approximately eight weeks until the July 2 polling date, allowing ample time for Turnbull’s popularity to further erode.
That the Government is polling behind the Labor Party prior to the election’s formal announcement has been unexpected. Not that long ago Turnbull had wrested the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott and was viewed as a charismatic and promising replacement. The generally held consensus was that Turnbull would set his mark upon the Prime Ministership and comfortably maintain his ascendance until the election. This prediction was well founded. Turnbull’s business acumen and diversified career made him well suited to the task of deft budgetary repair. He was also regarded as a seasoned and dynamic political leader capable of attracting the votes not just of traditional Liberal Party supporters, but also centrist and even progressive segments of the electorate.
Fast forward to the present, and the political outlook appears decidedly different. It now appears possible that Turnbull could lose the election.
How has this happened?
Turnbull has slipped behind in the battle of ideas. In retrospect, the turning point was Shorten’s announcement to reform negative gearing in order to stabilise metropolitan housing prices. Although the proposed reform was far from a “silver bullet” for Australia’s housing affordability woes, it was nonetheless received by many voters as a credible attempt to address what has become an intractable problem for Australian society.
Turnbull has also exhibited remarkable policy indecision. An increase in the GST was proposed, only to be dropped. A simplification to workplace tax deductions was mooted, only to be abandoned. A cut in the corporate tax rate was flagged, shelved, and is apparently now resurrected. A shift in responsibility for income tax to the States was floated, only to be rejected. Murmurs of reform on negative gearing were uttered, only to be precluded. These backflips could have been avoided by a more measured and less spontaneous process of policy development.
Turnbull has also been strategically hamstrung from tackling long overdue economic reform in an election year. As the backflips on taxation reveal, there is a genuine acceptance within the Government that revenue measures need to be recalibrated to strengthen the budget’s ailing bottom line and stimulate private and corporate expenditures. As the backflips equally reveal, such a recalibration is politically unpalatable with an election looming, as it creates a climate of winners and losers which could backfire come polling day.
This means that although Turnbull has shown an inclination to address economic reform, thus far, he has failed to act. This, in turn, has fed a perception of his Prime Ministership as titular.
As if these were not problems enough, Turnbull’s leadership has come under low level but persistent internal attack. Just last weekend Abbott again commanded considerable media attention in major metropolitan newspapers admitting that his government made mistakes and announcing his intention to apply the lessons of the past to his “future public life”. Earlier that same week details of the Government’s budgetary savings and post-budget advertising were leaked to Sky News’ Paul Murray. Before that, Liberal MP Kevin Andrews declared that he would be available for the Liberal Party’s leadership “if it arose”. Such machinations have needlessly undermined Turnbull’s leadership.
With the benefit of hindsight, Turnbull has perhaps excessively delayed by calling a July election, thereby lengthening the odds on his Prime Ministership.
Delay combined with an absence of policy development, economic reform and Prime Ministerial narrative, could be a costly combination.
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