There was no mistaking the difference in body language as MPs from the House of Representatives crammed into the Senate this morning to hear the Governor-General kick off the special post-prorogation sitting of Parliament. There were far too many MPs to fit on the Senate benches, so they took to the visitors’ seats lining the walls of the chamber. Labor MPs were upbeat, chipper, all smiles. Coalition MPs looked rather more funereal, understandably given the polling of the last 24 hours.

Over at the centre table sat the man who’d put them all there, Malcolm Turnbull, chatting amiably with Penny Wong, Bill Shorten and Barnaby Joyce. Eventually, the Governor-General, Abbott appointee Peter Cosgrove, rose and — briefly — explained that they’d been recalled to pass the ABCC and registered organisation bills, which were so important to the government’s reform agenda. He then left them to their “important deliberations”. Labor MPs had actually heckled during his speech; afterwards, Labor’s Stephen Conroy rose and savaged Cosgrove for his role in the prorogation. Labor’s in full election mode and uninterested in taking prisoners.

Thus begins a critical period for Turnbull: he has to end the momentum away from the government and get it going his way again, shift the agenda back onto the issues he wants to talk about (Bill Shorten = unions, unions = evil) and convince voters he knows what he’s doing. All before polling day on July 2, because the way things stand the ABCC bill, unless it’s dramatically altered, isn’t going to pass. Indeed, at this point Employment Minister Michaelia Cash isn’t even meeting with the Senate crossbenchers to try to craft a deal.

We’ll then be in a weird crepuscular period when we know an election will be held on July 2 but we’ll still be going through the motions of normal politics, and not just for a day or two but for weeks on end, up to and including a budget, before the starting gun is properly fired.

Meantime the government is stuck with the problem that it wants everyone to focus on the bill for which it has recalled the Senate, to re-establish the ABCC, but the electorate is more focused on banking scandals and the need for a royal commission into the financial sector. A result will be a hastily cobbled together package designed to create the impression the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has been substantially bolstered, empowered and sent after the banks.

One slight problem with that is that the government has been insisting until now that ASIC is already the “tough cop on the beat” (quit laughing up the back); more resources and more powers will somewhat undermine that argument, but presumably the government will suggest it’s an even tougher cop on the beat, a veritable Batman, indeed, to finally bring (more) justice to the (already cleaner) streets of Finance City.

Once that problem is out of the way, there’s just the challenge of producing a budget that can revive the government’s fortunes and address perceptions of policy drift and indecisiveness and resolve the tax “debate”. Except, in the period in which that “debate” has occurred, community expectations about tax have shifted: fairness is now the core issue the electorate wants to see addressed, not efficiency or growth. Through super tax measures and “tax integrity measures” the government could yet produce something useful on that front, but the perception of the Liberals as too closely aligned with the top end of town — and led by a former banker, no less — will be hard to shift, especially if its ASIC package sinks without trace.

It’s an immensely complex policy and political task that would challenge the most skilful politicians. And so far, Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t shown a great deal of skill, while his frontbench has shown even less.

No wonder his colleagues looked glum this morning.

Peter Fray

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