(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

The Morrison government hasn’t had a comfortable few days in Parliament. Fortunately it won’t be spending much time there in coming months.

The proposed parliamentary calendar for 2022 released yesterday leaves the possibility of just 10 sitting days between the end of this week and August, provided the government calls an election for May. So federal Parliament will sit for just seven days in February. Then, after a three-week hiatus, it will return in late March, with a budget proposed for the 29th. Then it’s election mode.

A poll must be called before May 21, and after months of tea leaf reading the calendar is the firmest evidence that Prime Minister Scott Morrison will go in May, effectively ruling out sittings in May and June.

If he calls a May election, the Senate will sit just five times between the start of the year and August. It means election promises like a federal integrity commission (delayed indefinitely — somehow Labor’s fault), and a religious discrimination bill (deferred to a joint committee with the Liberals divided) might not be legislated before the polls. 

A ‘work-shy government’

Even accounting for those sittings, the 46th Parliament will wind up being the least active in terms of sitting days since the 33rd Parliament, which lasted just a year and a half because of an early election in 1984. That lack of activity is in part because COVID-19 led to sittings being suspended in 2020. Not every comparable country did this. While Canada suspended some sittings, the UK never fully shut down Parliament, moving instead to hybrid virtual sittings.

Labor says the lack of action is a sign of the Morrison government’s parliamentary laziness. Speaking to the Nine network this morning, former opposition leader Bill Shorten said Australia had a “work-shy government”.

“If an unemployed person on Centrelink only had to do as few job interviews as Mr Morrison expects LNP parliamentarians to attend work in Parliament, the person on Centrelink would be breached and kicked off the dole,” he said.

Former Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles said the lack of sitting days had serious implications for government accountability: “The Parliament is there so that the electorate can see and hear what is taking place in government. That it’s sitting for only ten days is disgraceful.”

Of course, we could have even fewer than 10 sitting days if Morrison calls a March election in late January. He won’t yet commit to an election date, but Labor is prepared for the possibility of a March poll.

Asked about the date on television yesterday, Morrison repeated the line that “an election is due in the third week of May”. When pushed further, he dismissed election speculation as one of those distracting Canberra games he’d rather not engage in.

“People will play the political games down here in Canberra and they’ll carry on,” he said. “I’m not distracted, but our team is focused on ensuring that we secure this economic recovery, we keep Australians safe, whether it’s from the virus or the other threats we face.”

Whenever Morrison calls the election — and the impact of the Omicron variant could have a real bearing on that — the calendar means he gets to avoid those “Canberra games” and spend more time out on the campaign trail where he’d much rather be this week.

Canberra games continue

But those “Canberra games” over electoral timing are games of Morrison’s making. As prime minister, he gets the extraordinary tactical advantage of picking the date of the election at a time of his choosing, and has taken advantage of that by keeping both his political opponents and journalists on tenterhooks.

That advantage is unique to the prime ministership. Every state and territory barring Tasmania has fixed four-year electoral terms. The UK, Canada and the United States all have fixed terms. 

But at a federal level, the timing of an election is governed by a confusing thicket of provisions in the constitution and the Electoral Act. The former can only be changed via referendum and Australians have voted down four times aligning the House and Senate terms, effectively creating a fixed-term system.

Yesterday Shorten reiterated his calls for fixed parliamentary terms, something he’s been in favour of for some years. But until someone bothers to lead another referendum, we’re stuck with the Canberra games.