And we’re off. After an electoral Phoney War of several weeks, the Prime Minister has finally started the formal part of the 2016 election campaign with a visit to the Governor-General to seek the dissolution of both houses of Parliament and an election on July 2.
In his media conference after his visit to Yarralumla, a positive, upbeat and energetic Turnbull outlined the government’s key themes: the transition to a new economy and the government’s economic plan to take advantage of emerging opportunities and drive innovation. He spoke of the government’s commitment to defence manufacturing and commitment to taking advantage of the economic development of China, to helping young Australians into jobs and reforming the tax system. Turnbull made a point of emphasising multinational tax avoidance and the changes announced in the budget, using what sounded like a prepared line, but a potent one nonetheless: “We believe in lower taxes, but it is not optional to pay them.”
Switching to Labor in the second half of his address, Turnbull attacked Bill Shorten as leading a party of higher debt and more taxes (ironically, given Turnbull proposes to lift taxes and blow out the deficit) and accused him of failing to learn from the mistakes of the Rudd-Gillard years, identifying Labor’s plans for negative gearing as a dangerous experiment that would destroy investment. Turnbull extended the “experiment” metaphor to asylum seekers, saying that only the Coalition (“totally united”, he added, as a poke at Labor’s left-wing malcontents on asylum seeker policy) could be trusted to keep borders secure from refugees.
Overall, it was a strong performance from the Prime Minister to kick off his first election campaign as leader, but there are eight weeks, and many, many media performances, to go. There was only one mention of the entire rationale for a double dissolution, the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill, but that was always understood as the mere pretext for an electoral strategy.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is in Tasmania for the 10th anniversary of the Beaconsfield mine disaster. In a short, stilted address, Bill Shorten immediately spoke of health, education, climate change and the key Labor theme of fairness. “Who do you trust,” Shorten repeatedly asked about each of those areas, before going on to attack Turnbull over his Commonwealth school funding comments, tax cuts for millionaires and, surprisingly, the unfairness of superannuation tax changes. Once off his script and into questions, Shorten improved noticeably, while continuing to hammer the same themes. “Trust Labor” he said over and over, making it clear that trust would be a key theme for the opposition, an interesting choice given trust is traditionally seen as the classic John Howard election ploy. He also pointed out Turnbull entirely failed to mention climate change in his address. “We hoped Malcolm Turnbull would change the Liberal party but the Liberal Party changed him,” Shorten said. Expect to hear that line again.
Who’s going to win? It’s a remarkable eight weeks until the election, which means early campaign polls won’t help us much. The fortunes of both sides are likely to wax and wane over the next two months. Essential currently has Labor ahead 52-48, which would deliver a small majority of five seats if that translated into a uniform national swing (which it never does). The feeling in Canberra is that the government will sneak home, but neither a Labor victory nor a hung Parliament can be ruled out at this point. Why? Partly because the idea of another change of government is just too unusual for us to contemplate after the last few years. Partly because Turnbull has the advantages of incumbency and Bill Shorten is not particularly well-liked by the electorate.
And there’s also the New South Wales factor: there’s a widespread expectation that NSW will prove tough for Labor to crack and it won’t pick up the seats it needs there to get within striking distance of the 19 seats it needs to form government. Even so, the council amalgamation issue in NSW might yet play out in ways unhelpful for the Coalition there. And an air of disappointment hangs around Turnbull, which might prove more damaging than Shorten’s lack of popularity — after all, Tony Abbott won a landslide in 2013 despite being widely disliked in the electorate.