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Double dissolution: Turnbull steals a march on opponents

Malcolm Turnbull has not only acted decisively, he has caught his opponents on the hop. By taking the initiative he has already set the early agenda to get the 2016 election under way.

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Malcolm Turnbull's election ultimatum

Parliament recalled, the budget moved, the blowtorch applied to the senate - Mark Kenny analyses the Prime Minister's early election ultimatum.

His timing is about right, especially after the Senate's farcical performance last week. It seems obvious that, like the Prime Minister, the electorate has had a gutful of a dysfunctional Senate.

I have never seen so many senators whinging so loudly and saying so much nonsense just to look after themselves first. And while Labor's constant recourse to unbelievable hypocrisy is not new, it's not often the public get to see it so irrefutably exposed by its own shadow minister Gary Gray.

Turnbull's opening strategy has been two-pronged: the first is to confront the dysfunction in the Senate and the second is to address the problems of shocking behaviour in the labour market. In both cases the need for reform has been beyond doubt and yet constantly denied by crossbenchers and Labor.

The benefit of Senate reform will be that voters will know to whom their preferences are allocated. This is a good outcome on its merits but no one should expect that the Senate will be much better in the future. The only way forward for the government is to have better relationships with senators and to make it clear that, if necessary, the government will be prepared to reach for another double dissolution election in the future.

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Coalition control of the Senate is not the nirvana some would hope for.  It was certainly not so good in 2004 to 2007 when the Coalition had the numbers. By comparison, without the numbers, the Coalition demonstrated that much can be done with a minority in the Senate in 1996 with labour market reform and the GST in 1998. But that also lead to the undermining of the Australian Democrats, leaving space for the rise of the Greens.

The pressure on the crossbenchers will be acute because Turnbull has said they can stay until the end of their current tenure if they vote for the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Bill. People like Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus, who voted against the bill previously, will have the choice of voting against the bills or voting yes – and thus keep their jobs. What a juicy dilemma that might be!

My expectation is that the initial two-pronged approach will run up to the days before the May 3 budget. A few goodies could be expected on the weekend before May 3. Unlike Donald Trump in the US, who seems to gather more and more support the more outrageous he is, the more that senators whinge, the more that the public will support the need for change.

The budget will then be the platform for a third prong. This will neatly match the productivity debate, which will run from the ABCC contest in the Senate through to the jobs and growth narrative that is at the heart of the government's economics pitch. From there on in, the government can be expected to announce various initiatives on other key public interests including health and education, welfare, childcare, roads and the usual handouts.

What the government will say about further labour market reform is unknown. Personally I think the government needs to advocate more labour market reforms, if it wants to build its credibility as a fair dinkum economic manager. It also needs to propose more spending cuts. This requires a tricky judgment call. What Turnbull can't do is to repeat Tony Abbott's promises in the dying days of the 2013 election when he promised no cuts across major parts of the Commonwealth's expenditure envelope. To do too little on spending would suggest that the Coalition was not much better than Bill Shorten, the denier of rising debts.

Failure on this issue would shoot holes through Turnbull's standing. Today the polls show Turnbull is seen as a far better economic manager than Bill Shorten. Being a better economic manager is unquestionably a key to longevity in politics: ask Tony Abbott.

On Labor's side the big issues are the unions royal commission, capital gains tax, superannuation (which likely will be pinched by the Coalition) and negative gearing.   

I have yet watched an election where the public wanted a tax increase. Shorten needs to win seats to become PM but given that Shorten is proposing higher taxes while the Coalition wants to cut taxes, I'd say Malcolm Turnbull starts the campaign looking good for July 2.

Peter Reith is a Fairfax Media columnist and a former Howard government minister. 

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