The centre of federal government is effectively decamping to Western Australia, at some cost and inconvenience, to wave the flag for Saturday’s rerun of the Senate election there. Tony Abbott will spend the next couple of days campaigning and cabinet meets in Perth on Tuesday.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten will also be on the hustings.
While most obviously Saturday’s result is about the Senate’s numbers, the implications of the vote go further - for leaders who are still establishing identities in their respective roles, and for the minor parties.
In September, although the results were different in the first count and the recount, both produced outcomes of four from the broad “right” and two from the “left” for the post-July 1 Senate.
While Saturday’s result won’t affect the balance of power being in the hands of micro-party and independent players, if this vote resulted in a three-three split, the overall Senate numbers would move somewhat to the “left” and the government would find it rather harder to get its legislation through.
If the Liberals failed to hold the three Senate places they won in September, mutterings in their ranks about sideshows and distractions – Abbott’s knights and dames, the proposed change to the Racial Discrimination Act – would increase.
Abbott’s unilateral decision to step back to knighthoods has colleagues wondering about such a pointed lapse from the consultative style he has cultivated (apart from on Paid Parental Leave).
Out in voter land, Labor research in WA, both quantitative and focus groups, has shown strong opposition to the knights announcement. Men see it as getting priorities wrong; women are bemused.
Abbott has good natural campaigning fodder for the WA contest. Labor in the Senate has just rejected the repeal of both the carbon and mining taxes (though the distractions have overshadowed this). Both are issues that resonate in the west.
But Labor too has ready-made ammunition, as it pushes the line that the Abbott government is preparing to act like the Barnett government. Education will be a centrepiece of Shorten’s visit; he’ll address a rally against the state government’s cutting hundreds of jobs of teachers and teacher aides.
The Senate election comes at a difficult time for a federal government that is trying to pave the way for a tough budget.
The WA battle will in part test the message, being ramped up ahead of the budget by Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey, that hard decisions are needed.
The government is attempting to turn cutting into a political positive, saying Labor has left it no choice and arguing that fixing the budget is what the public expect.
A briefing note Hockey has had prepared paints a grim picture of the medium term.
“Without policy change, payments are projected to be larger than receipts in every year to 2023-24, meaning that by then the budget would have been in deficit for 16 consecutive years … an historic run of deficits,” it says.
“From 2017-18 [the last year of the forward estimates], payments are projected to increase substantially (a real increase of almost 6% in just one year) because Labor back-ended expenditure in a number of key areas … There is a 4.2% increase projected in health and a 3.5% increase in education. In defence, a real increase for spending in one year of 13% was projected, and on foreign aid, a 66% increase. There would also be a 125% increase as the full rollout of the NDIS nears,” it says.
“If tax cuts were provided in order to return fiscal drag and prevent the tax-to-GDP ratio reaching historically high levels, the savings task would be even larger.
"Without returning fiscal drag, in 2023-24 the average tax rate for a taxpayer earning the projected average full-time wage ($112,000) will increase to 28%, from 23% this year.”
All this showed the “absolute imperative” of taking action.
(Of course this is a hypothetical snapshot – in the sense that if Labor had survived it would have had to make its own adjustments.)
The government’s expenditure review committee is expected to consider some crunch decisions ahead of both Abbott and Hockey being out of the country next week (the PM in Asia, Hockey in the US), but we won’t see the Commission of Audit report with its recommendations for cuts until some time after Saturday’s election.
ABC electoral analyst Antony Green predicts the Liberals will hold the three seats they won in September. If they don’t, something will have gone “dreadfully wrong” with their vote in WA, Green says, pointing out they have won three in every election since 1990.
Green predicts Labor will get two, with the final seat being fought out between Greens and Clive Palmer’s PUP. The Greens and PUP both need to prove something after their poor performances at the Tasmanian election.
Palmer is making an enormous push with advertising, another test of how many votes money can buy. He told The Conversation he believes there is less support this time for the micro parties (among which he doesn’t include PUP).
All the players are acutely aware of the importance of one factor they didn’t have to worry about last time: the need to actively get out their vote. A low turnout is widely expected, lending a extra element of intensity and uncertainty to the campaigning.