Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott’s federal election preparations

Federal parliament has gone into its long winter recess – six weeks when many of our elected representatives flee the country for “study purposes”. The prime minister, however, told his party room he didn’t want them to take off more than a week. “Everyone needs to be campaigning over the break,” he warned. “We’re not far from an election year.” 

The opposition leader was more specific. He told caucus, “I reckon there’s a real possibility we won’t be coming back until after an election.” Governments going early in their first term is more the norm than the exception. So Bill Shorten’s wariness is well placed. Tony Abbott’s behaviour in recent weeks is throwing up pretty compelling evidence that he is poised to rush to the polls as soon as he thinks he has a better than even chance of winning.

Proof that Labor thinks Abbott is a very poor poker player is the fact that it has begun putting its fiscal balance sheet in better shape. Time for saying no and being framed as budget-wrecking vandals is rapidly drawing to a close. This, for two reasons. First, any measure Labor opposes goes on to its bottom line when the Charter of Budget Honesty kicks in during the election campaign. Oppose too many savings, and Labor could be shown going to the polls with a bigger black hole than the government. Second, should it win power, it wants to be better prepared than the Abbott opposition was. Almost all of the government’s political nightmare in its first 18 months was due to its fiscal recklessness in opposition. Abbott handcuffed his treasurer to an impossible task: repair the budget but don’t raise taxes or cut spending to do it.

Joe Hockey resolved the dilemma by breaking every promise his rash leader had made. Labor made political hay in the sunshine on offer. It refused to wave through measures that were blatant breaches of trust. One of the biggest was the attempt to restore the twice-yearly indexation of petrol excise. For 12 months we were told this was a big tax on everything that was going to hurt ordinary people. Shorten regularly said it was going to turn every petrol bowser into a tax collection agency for a rotten budget. So what’s changed, he was asked at his news conference announcing Labor’s sudden decision to support the measure.

The answer highlights a theme Labor will hammer in any pending election campaign. There is a huge gulf between the Coalition’s rhetoric and reality on economic management. Besides, a gaffe-prone Joe Hockey is undermining the Liberals’ traditional strong point – the economy. In 12 months, the treasurer has doubled the deficit with the outlook worsening. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said that means everybody is faced with difficult choices. Circumstances have dramatically changed. Shorten said he was prepared to compromise because otherwise all Australians would have been worse off. Government revenues certainly would have been.

The Australia Institute estimates the Howard government decision in 2001 to cut indexation cost the budget more than $46 billion in tax revenue to date. Without change, that would have exploded to a whopping $160 billion in the next 10 years. Besides an eye to making life easier for itself should it return to the treasury benches, Labor beat the Greens to the punch. And in doing so shone a spotlight on that party’s own contradictions. It was refusing to implement its own policy of taxing pollution while at the same time encouraging voters out of their cars and onto public transport. 

Many in the opposition’s ranks were still smarting from new Greens leader Richard Di Natale getting fiscal kudos by waving through $2.4 billion worth of savings achieved by tightening eligibility for the pension. An estimated 90,000 wealthier retirees will lose out, while 320,000 poorer pensioners got a boost. A very Labor thing to do, many thought. While the opposition voted against the measure, Shorten was palpably reluctant to commit himself to restoring the more generous arrangement. He pleaded time to assess the impact of the change, only to be reminded it doesn’t apply until 2017. Abbott’s gamble that Labor would not make it an election issue appears to have paid off.

The opposition tried valiantly this week to move the political debate on to two of its preferred grounds, education and health. It was mightily assisted by the leaking of draft green papers from the prime minister’s department on reforming the federation. The drafts set off alarm bells in all the states. There as an option was Canberra abandoning funding schools and hospitals. That debate has its own pitfalls, but a sure sign an election may be sooner rather than later came with swift denials that free public school education was under threat.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne, already at risk in his seat from a Nick Xenophon Team candidate over submarines, rushed onto Twitter: “Charging wealthy parents for their children to attend public schools is not the government’s policy. I don’t support it.” Abbott at first appeared to lend weight to the idea, praising the creative thinking behind it. Not surprising, as one of his favourite free-market think tanks cooked it up. But by question time he, too, ran in the opposite direction. Although the prime minster did not resile from pointing out health and education were primarily state responsibilities. The states, Liberal and Labor, smell a big funding rat here. In her budget this week the New South Wales treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, pointed to massive cuts in funding telegraphed last year by Hockey.

There’s no doubt this is fertile ground for Labor but don’t expect it to rewind the clock to a “full Gonski” – the education reform plan outlined by the panel chaired by businessman David Gonski. Shorten is merely promising a more generous needs-based policy.

Abbott was much more successful at dominating the week with national security. Against a backdrop of 10 national flags and flanked by his attorney-general and immigration minister, he was almost Churchillian: “The government will never surrender the freedoms that we Australians hold precious but we will fight for them.”

Though he had crab-walked back from his original intent to strip all terrorists of citizenship without judicial review, he was unapologetic. For the past three weeks, he has gone into overdrive, flaying Labor for daring to question the constitutional validity of what he was proposing, portraying it as weak on the defence of the nation. At the weekend, he was still keeping up the pretence, suggesting judges can’t be trusted.

It’s not only the opposition that spies a prime minister in pre-election mode. Some on his own backbench are worried that he is misreading how well the government is actually travelling. “We would get flogged right now,” is the view of several. “There’s no support for an early election,” says another. An average of the latest polls in fact shows a tick up for Labor’s support, 52.5 to 47.5 per cent. And while Newspoll had Abbott overtaking Shorten on preferred prime minister and approval, other polls have Shorten improving his position. An Essential poll at the beginning of the month on leader attributes showed Abbott did badly on 14 of the 15 categories compared with the Labor leader. Despite the relentless bagging Shorten gets from the Abbott media cheer squad, he is in a much better position than they care to acknowledge.

A senior Labor strategist says, “Abbott is still poison. That’s why he is hoping the unions royal commission will destroy Shorten.” It may be a faint hope. Much depends on just how jaundiced the prime minister’s hand-picked commissioner, Dyson Heydon, is in assessing whatever is put before him. The prime minister is relying on the enmity of the more militant unions against the Australian Workers Union to provide the ammunition. Under Shorten, the moderate union prospered at the expense of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and other left unions. The irony is, as business leader Tony Shepherd pointed out, Shorten hammered out deals that saw everyone winners. A Shorten ally says companies did pay commissions to the union but they got services in return.

All of this will begin to play out in two weeks. According to one senior Liberal, the prime minister would be looking for a double-dissolution election by October. He already has a trigger, but the stakes are high. It is true that theoretically he could win control of both houses of parliament. But Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm doesn’t think Abbott would even hold on to government. Besides, there will be no reform of the senate voting system, meaning it will be even easier for a raft of preference-whispering mavericks to win seats. 

None of that is likely to deter our warrior prime minister. The narrative is set. Already the Liberal party is using the terror threat to fundraise for the poll. The battle cry? “Donate now to support a safer Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2015 as "Abbott’s poll two guise".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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