24 April 2016
Had the change of leadership last September led to the expected results, the next Federal election would’ve been held in about September or October this year. Now the election looks likely to be a few months earlier, in July. Although this shouldn’t really raise eyebrows, there’s more to this than meets the eye, at least at first glance.
Back in 2013, the Liberal-National Coalition had won an election off the back of major public satisfaction with the Labor Party, which had endured leadership problems and looked somewhat incompetent in office. But despite the election win, the Coalition leader had always been unpopular with the voters, and this didn’t change when he became Prime Minister. His unpopularity somehow gave Labor a chance of winning office back despite its troubles, and for many months one opinion poll after another confirmed it. This scared the Liberal Party, and in September last year it led to a leadership challenge against the PM, which he lost.
People widely thought that a different person as PM would bring results, particularly with getting legislation through the Senate, where the Coalition lacked a majority and could only pass legislation with the support of crossbenchers. Whereas the former PM was considered a combative type, with a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Senate crossbenchers, the new PM was thought more likely to be able to persuade them to support legislation, and unpopular legislation at that.
But during months of initially high popularity with the voters, the new PM seems to have merely floated ideas, and dropped them at the first sign of unpopularity with voters. This leaves voters unsure about what he seeks to do on various issues, including the hard job of reducing Federal budget deficits. At the same time, people have long known where he stands on some issues, but they’re so at odds with where many Liberals stand that he’s unable to stand by his own principles. And he also seems to have merely adapted the combative approach of his ousted predecessor.
The former PM and his cheer squad often ranted about the unhelpfulness of the Senate when he couldn’t get legislation through. But his unpopularity meant that any election called with him in charge would see the Coalition defeated. And the new PM, as well as seeing his initial popularity slip away, has gone from looking like a crossbench persuader to looking like a crossbench destroyer, which his predecessor probably sought to be.
Many people, myself included, didn’t expect the new PM to become as flustered and frustrated as this. Indeed at first he was arguably accepting of the need to deal with the Senate crossbench, because that was how it was. But he’s since moved to change how people win Senate seats at elections, making it harder for non-Coalition and non-Labor people to win Senate seats, and threatened an early election if the Senate crossbenchers didn’t support some other legislation. With the Senate crossbenchers refusing to give in, the PM has carried out his threat, and now a July poll looks likely.
And here’s why I’ve been referring to both the former PM and the new PM by those terms, for the moment. Given that men known as Tony sometimes go by the nickname “Tone”, I apply this contextually to the former PM, Tony Abbott, who was considered combative and sometimes mad, even if not always angry in the true sense of the word. As for man who became PM last September, Malcolm Turnbull, he’s lately been replicating the combative approach of his predecessor – I call this “mad-Tone disease”.
It might sound crude, but I think that it sums up the approach of Turnbull’s predecessor, for reasons above. And I didn’t believe that Turnbull would turn as nasty as he’s become in relation to the Senate crossbenchers. But now Australia looks like having a July poll, unexpectedly caused by a case of mad-Tone disease, afflicting a leader thought least likely to catch it.
Normally, Federal elections see voters electing half of twelve Senators in each state. But if the Senate repeatedly rejects certain pieces of legislation, the PM can move for a double-dissolution election, whereby all twelve Senators in each state face the voters. The only danger for the major parties is that minor parties and Independents need fewer votes to win seats in double-dissolution elections, because in each state there are more available seats, which are won on a proportional basis, meaning how many votes parties and candidates win within their given state. In the meantime, the territories have two Senators each, and they face the voters at every election. And a double-dissolution now looks to be coming.
The coming election will have surprised people in terms of timing. But what surprises more would be that the poll should result from mad-Tone disease, care of a former PM with a penchant for unwelcome combat.