There is a saying in boxing that you should never telegraph your punches if you can help it. Former prime minister Tony Abbott was a boxer in his youth, but it appears that current leader Malcolm Turnbull never pulled on the gloves because, if he had, he might be more alert to the dangers of letting all of your opponents know what you are going to do well in advance of actually doing it.
The timing of the 2016 election is a case in point. The media are convinced that there will be a double-dissolution election to be held on Saturday, July 2, and have declared the election campaign to be on in earnest.
What is actually happening is that Turnbull is trying to set up the pretext for a double-dissolution election by re-introducing to the Senate legislation designed to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). This bill had been defeated once before, and a second defeat would qualify it as a double-dissolution trigger under Section 57 of the Constitution.
The point is that the election trigger has not been pulled yet. There has been no prime ministerial visit to the governor-general to advise on the need for new elections, and no writs have been issued. All that has happened so far has been a series of telegraphed punches from Turnbull including the recalling of parliament, the rescheduling of the debate for the appropriation bills, and the passage of Senate voting reforms.
Turnbull has even telegraphed his intention to make industrial relations an issue if and when the election is called – provided the Senate does actually reject the ABCC bill a second time. He will be in a tricky situation if, against expectations, the crossbench passes the bill.
With the faux election underway, commentators have been musing about the wisdom of prime ministers allowing for such a long campaign period. The group-think on this has been referring to the experience of Bob Hawke in 1984 when his government, having made important changes to the electoral laws including an increase in the number of parliamentarians, called an election that ran for ten weeks.
The conventional wisdom was that this campaign went on for too long and Labor under-performed as a result. Commentators are speculating that history could repeat itself in 2016.
The problem with making such a comparison is that the circumstances of the 1984 election were quite different from those at this election. The 1984 election was called very soon after the 1983 double-dissolution election – which Labor won very comfortably – primarily to bring the timing of half-Senate elections back into line with the tenure of the House of Representatives.
With such a prosaic rationale for the contest, Hawke struggled to find issues with which to engage the voters. The then-opposition leader, Andrew Peacock, had some success in drawing attention to the government’s faults. Given Labor was defending a margin won in 1983 at a government-changing election, seat losses in 1984 were inevitable.
When it happened, however, the conventional wisdom was that Hawke had somehow failed and that a prime minister should therefore avoid long election campaigns.
Unlike the situation in 1984, the 2016 election is due somewhere within the expiry of the normal three-year cycle for the House of Representatives. The community has been expecting an election, and Turnbull’s government has been in a de-facto election campaign since the beginning of the year.
The government’s messy abandonment of its own tax reform debate was due in no small way to the reality of an imminent election and that any decision to increase taxes would be politically damaging.
The government has also been involved in a messy debate about reforming the Senate voting system, but such matters don’t register with voters who are more interested in debates about issues that affect them directly such as taxation, economic policy, health, education and national security.
Given the government’s capacity for protracted policy musings that don’t appear to result in real outcomes, the sense that Turnbull has finally grasped the nettle on something and is going to try to use the electoral process to deal with the Senate may be a godsend for the Coalition. The imperatives of an election will mean that the meandering Turnbull method of policy debate will be put aside.
It will also mean that the conservative rump in his partyroom will have to stop sniping at him over social issues and rejoin the collective Liberal effort against Labor and the Greens.
There is always the risk in any election campaign that something can go awry. It is logical to assume that the longer the campaign, the greater is the risk that something will go wrong. It is a risk that applies to all the leaders, however, and not just Turnbull.
One clear risk will be the challenge of holding voters’ interest for ten weeks, which will mean very careful planning or when and how the government rolls out policy. As the campaign enters the depths of winter, the government will not want voters to become annoyed with or sick of it.
An election had to be held at some point in 2016, and Turnbull is at least trying to do something about the Senate. Perhaps his biggest mistake so far has been that he did not call a double-dissolution election sooner.