So that’s it, the 44th parliament is done and dusted, apart from some Senate estimates hearings being held today. The Prime Minister is off to visit Sir Peter Cosgrove (don’t forget the knighthood), most likely on Sunday, to finally launch the double dissolution election he promised back in March in a move hailed by many of the political cognoscenti as a bold and brilliant decision.
At this point, however, it’s not looking too flash. The government is trailing Labor — not by much, certainly not by any insurmountable amount, and it has plenty of time, but it’s not where the Coalition or the rest of us, or even Labor, thought they’d be even a couple of months ago. Appropriately, yesterday turned into a debacle for the government when first Morrison and then Turnbull struggled with the corporate tax cut costing. As Tony Burke pointedly observed in the opposition’s censure motion later in the day, not knowing the cost of every line in the budget was understandable, but it was inexplicable that they wouldn’t know the cost of their budget centrepiece.
It’s a similar story to that of the Parliament as a whole. Tony Abbott was elected in 2013 in a near-landslide by voters sick of the Rudd-Gillard circus and thirsting for the kind of adult, no-surprises government Abbott promised. Abbott, briefly, was scoring good approval ratings. But he buggered it up. Time and time again he made mistakes, often really basic mistakes, and frittered away electoral goodwill, until the electorate came to loathe Abbott and hanker for his removal. Never before had a prime minister been given such an opportunity and squandered it so badly.
And now, Malcolm Turnbull faces the same test. He, too, had it all — or if not all, then a solid chunk of it. Yes, the expectations of him were so high that they were always bound to be disappointed. But nothing summed up the period around his ascension better than the reaction of one Labor MP, who said about Turnbull’s impact on his party’s electoral prospects “we’re fucked, but it’s good for the country”. However, he too has squandered the goodwill and political capital he began with. He too has made basic errors. Perhaps it’s the job. John Howard had a rotten first term, but he survived to make a reasonable fist of the job. Since then, we haven’t had a PM who’s been in the Lodge long enough to learn from their mistakes about doing one of the toughest jobs in the country.
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But part of it comes down to Labor. “We’ve learned the hard lessons of the past,” Shorten said last night. Unlike Labor every term since Kim Beazley led them to defeat in 2001, they’ve stuck behind their leader, if only narrowly. And Shorten made the right call when Turnbull became prime minister — he wasn’t going to be able to compete with politics’ most eloquent and charismatic figure, so the best option was to concentrate on policy. The result has skewed the whole political environment away from what the Coalition has wanted to talk about — particularly union corruption and innovation — towards what Labor wants to talk about: tax fairness, multinational tax avoidance, the rich rorting super tax concessions.
The result is that the government emerges from budget week and into the campaign proper without having been able to fully exploit its incumbency or control the political agenda. And Malcolm Turnbull has never led his party into an election, and Scott Morrison has never taken the Treasury portfolio into one. Shorten is also an election neophyte, but he has Chris Bowen by his side, a man who nails his key messages with Waleed Aly-like efficiency while Morrison can look lost and incapable of uttering anything beyond cliches.
The sense in Canberra is that Turnbull will sneak home and emerge as a better prime minister once he has a mandate. But he has consistently disappointed expectations as leader, and may yet do so again. And remember, a Shorten government isn’t the only alternative. Think about a Turnbull minority government, or one with a tiny majority, subject to threat of defection by disgruntled MPs — and the disproportionate influence such MPs might end up having.
It should be a fascinating election. And Crikey will be covering the start on the weekend.