If Abbott’s finger is on election trigger, risk of misfire remains high

Never before has Australia had a situation where the leaders of both major parties are so little liked. AAP/James Alcock

Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.

There may be argument about whether or not this epigram originated with Otto von Bismarck. But what is not in doubt is that it has never been bettered as a description of the political process.

Its application to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s appearance before the trade union royal commission is especially apt. Shorten is not the first Australian politician to have been tardy about declaring a political donation, nor is he Robinson Crusoe when it comes to campaign funding and conflicts of interest.

Rarely, though, are the unsavoury facts of politics on show for all to see as they were in Sydney last week.

That makes Shorten’s performance under cross-examination more damaging than if the record had been corrected in the usual manner, quietly and without immediate scrutiny. The Abbott government certainly seems to think so. Why else would it be reportedly contemplating a double dissolution election when it remains behind in the polls?

Seizing on Shorten’s woes

Whether or not Prime Minister Tony Abbott proceeds to an early election, a Labor vote against two reintroduced bills on union corruption would reinforce the suspicions about Shorten that were amplified at the royal commission. Abbott does already hold one trigger for a double dissolution election, but the failed attempt to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is hardly one to build a campaign on.

If Shorten’s stumbling over his union past were to be the catalyst for an improvement in the Coalition’s polling numbers, so much the better. Abbott would then have more convincing triggers for a double dissolution election even if the consequence was an even more unmanageable Senate than the current motley crew of crossbenchers.

Analysts are deeply divided – even more so than normal – on the impact of Shorten’s appearance at the royal commission. The Courier-Mail’s Dennis Atkins declared that while Shorten took a significant hit, there was no smoking gun and that he would survive as opposition leader. Laurie Oakes, by contrast, wrote that Shorten should think about stepping down.

The disagreement about the broader long-term implications of Shorten’s performance is a reflection of the novelty of Australia’s current political predicament. Never before has Australia had a situation where the leaders of both major parties are so little liked, if not loathed; where the polls have suggested for so long that this will be a one-term government; where the Coalition’s vote in its strongholds of Queensland and Western Australia has dived so deeply.

These novel variables make predictions even more difficult than in the past.

Ever since his brush with political death at the beginning of the year, Abbott has been struggling to come up with a formula to win public confidence. None of it has worked – not even frightening the living daylights out of the voters over national security or trying to wedge Labor as being “soft on terror”.

Maybe Shorten’s unconvincing royal commission performance will do the trick. It could enable the Coalition to handcuff Labor to trade union corruption without the annoying problems that any substantive discussion of industrial relations reform entails.

That way lies the ghost of WorkChoices. This was such a disaster for the Coalition that Abbott simply refuses to countenance any substantive discussion of workplace reform, even as employers howl about penalty rates.

The polls

Abbott’s leadership ratings and his standing as preferred prime minister have improved since the beginning of the year, but only to the point where he is roughly at level pegging with Shorten. Shorten’s standing is hardly anything to write home about either.

State by state and seat by seat, the picture is much worse for Abbott and the Coalition. Using Poll Bludger’s weighted aggregate of all the significant polls, Labor was sitting at 52.2% nationwide on a two-party-preferred basis at the end of June, with the Coalition on 47.8%.

The slide in the Coalition’s support is only being contained in New South Wales and Tasmania. In Tasmania, the opposition would recover none of the seats lost at the last election. In NSW, the Coalition vote is down 3.5%, but Labor could only be confident of regaining three seats – five at most.

However, that is the end of the good news for Abbott. In the southern states of Victoria and South Australia – traditionally happy hunting grounds for Labor – the Coalition is well and truly on the nose. Labor would pick up two seats in South Australia, and three in Victoria.

In Queensland and Western Australia, the gloss is well and truly off the Coalition. In the 2013 election, these two states guaranteed it victory. But in WA today, Coalition support has slumped more than seven points. In Queensland, the figure is 6.9%. According to the polls, Labor could recover all eight Queensland seats lost to the Coalition in 2013. In WA, a couple of Coalition seats are at risk.

All in all, the polls suggest Labor could currently pick up 22 seats – enough to give it a narrow majority of 77 in the House of Representatives. However, party number crunchers think that some first-term Coalition MPs in Queensland are more firmly entrenched than the poll numbers suggest.

A double dissolution election would render the Senate even more unworkable with the likelihood of several more microparty crossbenchers. That should be a significant factor in Abbott’s thinking.

The mere presence of a couple more double dissolution triggers may help keep Labor off balance. However, the risks attached to going the next step and having a double dissolution election ought to be enough to convince Abbott to keep his powder dry for the time being.