Having lost his huge lead in the opinion polls after almost three months of dithering on economic reform, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has seized back the initiative by recalling both houses of Parliament to consider controversial legislation with the threat that if not passed, he will call an early election on July 2.
The purpose of the legislation is to restore the construction industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, dropped by the pro-union Labor Gillard government when in office. In a letter seeking and winning the approval of the governor-general to recall parliament, the prime minister told Peter Cosgrove the legislation was of ‘great importance’ and needed to deal with ‘widespread and systemic criminality in the building and construction industries’.
In order to provide for a three week debate, senators will be pulled back from a seven week break on April 18. The federal budget will also be brought forward to May 3, a week earlier than planned.
The chances of the controversial legislation being passed seem slim, if the views of the two main opposition parties, Labor and the Greens, along with a large group of dissenting senators are to be believed. This means the odds of a July 2 election are high. Electioneering has already begun, with Opposition leader Bill Shorten campaigning in Queensland today.
Last week the Senate passed – after an all night sitting – legislation to give voters the right to distribute their secondary preferences on polling day, rather than having that decision taken out of their hands by the parties to whom they gave their primary votes. Under Australia’s complex proportional representation system, this system enabled individuals and minority parties to get elected, even though only receiving two per cent or less of the primary vote. The government got the legislation through the Senate because of the support of the Greens, whose leaders calculated they might pick up more seats if voters were given the right to direct their second preferences.
The Canberra commentariat thought this had done enough to make calling an early election unlikely, but they reckoned without Turnbull and his attorney-general George Brandis using a clause in the Constitution that enables the governor-general to recall Parliament if he agrees to a request from the prime minister. That request went in on Sunday, and was agreed the same day.
Despite a fall in popularity from last September, when he replaced Tony Abbott, Turnbull remains the bookies’ favourite to win a July election, though anything can happen during what is likely to be a long and bitter campaign.