As noted previously, Malcolm Turnbull boxed himself into a corner on a GST increase. He’s now done the same in relation to calling the election itself. Instead of leaving options open and choosing whichever best suits at the time, the government now faces a set of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemmas in terms of when and how to call an election.

If the Senate again rejects the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill, how can the government properly justify not going to a double dissolution? Ever since the trade union royal commission report was handed down at the tail end of last year, the case has been built for why it would be open to the government to call a double dissolution election should the Senate reject the bill. After all the huff and bluster, the government would now be seen to be squibbing it if it didn’t go to the polls on the issue. The boy who cried wolf now has the whole political establishment calling its bluff.

To not call a double dissolution would invite the question of whether the government really cared about the issue, and if not, why would the Senate ever take the threat seriously again?

More concerning for Turnbull is that this is the one issue that unites the Coalition and is not just seen as an Abbott initiative. To not go on the issue would leave his own side wondering what he stands for.

Consider the alternative: the ABCC bill is passed by the Senate. On what grounds can the government realistically call a double dissolution? The Senate would have just delivered the government’s legislation. The government would have to hail back to either the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) legislation or the Registered Organisations legislation, which the Senate rejected some time ago. No double dissolution election was called at the time, and since then the government itself has said one of those bills is outdated legislation that needs updating and strengthening. The crossbenchers’ thank-you cards must be in the post.

Turnbull is concerned he must go to a double dissolution if the legislation is blocked but can’t if the legislation is passed. The decision has been taken out of his hands.

Then there is the election timing, and Turnbull has a minefield to negotiate there too. Going to a double dissolution election after the March sittings would mean a poll before July, which would put the Senate out of sync with the House of Representatives and not allow Turnbull to deliver a budget. However, not going immediately would leave the government looking like the ABCC legislation was not urgent. The economic debate would move on, the budget would take centre stage. Would Turnbull then try to revive the issue?

And anyway what’s the alternative? Wait until they can have a double dissolution election in July? Calling the election the day after the budget, causing constitutional shenanigans about how supply would be arranged, and giving the opposition the budget reply speech as a campaign launch before a 57-day campaign would be a high-risk strategy.

Perhaps what’s left is to dump the double dissolution idea altogether and go full term, as Turnbull has always said was his preference. But that would mean leaving the current crossbench in place for another three years — a crossbench Turnbull has just enraged with Senate voting reform plans. Having put in place the legislation to get rid of them would be self-induced sabotage — for three years.

There are no good options left for Malcolm Turnbull. He’ll have to figure out which is the least bad one, and the longer he takes, the fewer options he’ll have.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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