As election campaign starts go, yesterday was a rolled-gold shocker for the Turnbull government. Like a drunk lurching from one stumble to another, every time the government got to its feet, it was merely preparation for the next slip-up. And at the end of the day, it wandered into the Senate, where Labor, the Greens and the crossbenchers were, to use the late Queensland premier Wayne Goss’ immortal phrase, waiting with baseball bats. It got ugly fast.
In 1987, when we last had a double dissolution election, then-prime minister Bob Hawke visited governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen on June 4 to arrange the calling of an election (on July 11) the following day. He then returned to Parliament, where he and Paul Keating assailed the John Howard-led opposition in question time. They could do that because Hawke and Keating dominated Parliament and the Coalition was being torn apart by the Joh-for-PM campaign.
Turnbull and his brains trust have, in their wisdom, decided to go one better than Hawke. Not merely was there a question time after the campaign effectively started yesterday, Parliament is going to keep on sitting for several weeks. And Turnbull and his hapless Treasurer Scott Morrison certainly do not dominate Parliament, and their opponents are disciplined and unified. Most of all, the government doesn’t control the Senate.
In fact, the government seemed loath to even accept it was in election mode, with senior ministers starting the day merely talking about having a trigger for a double dissolution, as if unwilling to go into full election mode. And in a media conference conducted mid-morning at a building site in suburban Canberra, Malcolm Turnbull — introduced by local far-right zealot Zed Seselja — spoke about how successful the previous day’s Senate sitting had been. When pressed on the election, Turnbull hemmed and hawed and used lawyerly language that observed the constitutional niceties about requesting the dissolution of both houses of Parliament.
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It was a bizarre contrast with how election announcements are usually made — from the prime ministerial courtyard, complete with flags and “most important election in a generation” boilerplate, with the PM identifying the key themes of their party’s campaign, attempting to set the narrative from the outset, using the slogans and keywords of the weeks to come. Instead, we had a Prime Minister on a building site, explaining “I just want to be very clear that we are governing. We have a lot of decisions to make,” and leaving it slightly vague as to whether the country would indeed be voting on July 2.
At that very moment, Bill Shorten was on his feet in the House of Representatives trying to move a motion for a royal commission into the banks. He was silenced by the government, but he marched straight into a press conference with his deputy Tanya Plibersek and his shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen, where he hit every note of a tightly scripted campaign message perfectly. Gone is the maladroit king of zingers from earlier in this term, replaced with a far sharper, punchier messenger. In dire contrast to Turnbull, Shorten is fully in election mode, knows what his strategy is and has a unified, focused team behind him.
And the absence of the usual powerful start to a campaign by an incumbent was reinforced by a series of stuff-ups unusual even for this government. There had already been a leak of the government’s budget advertising campaign, to one of the Abbott coterie’s favoured Sky presenters, which raised awkward questions about the use of taxpayer dollars during what is effectively an election campaign. Western Australian backbencher Dennis Jensen — whose preselectors had finally killed off his career on the third attempt — bagged the government on his way into Parliament. A planned release of the government’s response to the bank royal commission — a restoration of the funding it cut from ASIC and some beefing up of its powers (the Batman-isation of the “tough cop on the beat”) had to be delayed.
On top of that, the joint party room meeting went well over time (forcing Turnbull to arrive very late for his Belconnen media conference) as MPs questioned the government’s stance against a royal commission. And the sublimely awful Attorney-General George Brandis rose in the Senate to casually declare that the science of climate change wasn’t settled, thereby demonstrating yet again that, whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s previous enthusiasm for addressing climate change, this is a government of climate denialists.
But it was late in the day when things went seriously bad. While MPs had packed up and were heading home, the Senate kept on going. Labor engineered a change to orders to keep the Senate sitting until all the business on its agenda had been dealt with. And first cab off the rank was an inquiry into political donations disclosure and associated entities — i.e. the Free Enterprise Foundation and its use to hide illegal donations by the NSW Liberal Party. That got up. Second cab off the rank was a requirement that Arthur Sinodinos front that inquiry. That, too, got up.
At this point, the penny might have dropped within government ranks that, far from being an ingenious move to demonstrate decisiveness and a seizing of the political agenda, Turnbull’s cunning plan to prorogue parliament and then recall it to consider the ABCC bill had merely deeply pissed off the crossbench and left the Senate, which had dealt with the ABCC bill with an alacrity that should have concerned the government, with time on its hands. Remember, courtesy of Turnbull’s faux-election campaign strategy, parliament is continuing until several days after the budget. That means there’s three weeks for Senate committees to get up to mischief — including an inquiry into the NSW Liberal Party.
And having alienated the crossbench, the government wasn’t going to get any sympathy for its plight as Labor set about making its life miserable. Brandis tried to rise to oppose the summoning of Sinodinos as establishing a terrible precedent, but Labor had engineered the overarching procedural motion so that he only had a minute in which to speak. The bloviating bore from Brisbane barely worked himself up into mid-level dudgeon before he was unceremoniously sat down. So now the Liberal Party faces a senate inquiry into its dodgy donations over the next three weeks. And Arthur Sinodinos has to front up to it.
You can’t do much about leaks, of course. But the rest of yesterday’s shambles by the government was the result of its own planning, poor judgement and mysterious inability to do the basics of working out a narrative and delivering it. In contrast, Labor looks like they know what they want to do and how they’re going to do it.
What’s that old cliche about governments losing elections, rather than oppositions winning them? If the rest of the campaign is anything like the first day, then Turnbull will lose. The only positive is that the campaign is going to be so long, the government has time to learn on the job.