Path ahead for Malcolm Turnbull paved with uncertainty

A lot of circumstances are beyond the Prime Minister's control as he bets on a double-dissolution election.

The immediate reaction to Malcolm Turnbull's decision on Monday to recall Parliament was extraordinarily positive. The decision was described as a masterstroke and he was suddenly painted as decisive rather than an apparent ditherer.

This reaction left the Prime Minister glowing. Commentators believed that he had outlined a clear road back for the government from Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin's ruin to Turnbull's redemption.

However, the story about the path Turnbull has laid out and the roadblocks that still remain on it is actually more complex. The manoeuvre may turn out to be too clever by half.

Firstly, two roadblocks were confronting Turnbull, and it depends which of them was the more important obstacle. One was a recalcitrant Senate while the other was a recalcitrant Liberal Party and recalcitrant Coalition partner.

They interacted with two aspects of Turnbull's persona, right-wing economic conservative and centrist cultural progressive.

Both were overhangs from the Abbott era. The Senate roadblock in the form of the micro-parties was famously linked to the failed 2014 budget, the most important element in the demise of the Abbott government. But, despite Turnbull's decision to undertake Senate reform with the backing of the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon, this roadblock had already diminished in public importance since he became Prime Minister last September. Successful Senate reform indicated that.


The more important roadblock was an internal government matter. He had blocked himself when he negotiated the leadership and then been further blocked by the conservative wing of his party, inspired from the backbench by Abbott.

It was his internal party and Coalition compromises on matters like same-sex marriage and the Safe Schools program, as well as indecision over taxation reforms, which had weakened his public profile and contributed to his perception as a ditherer. His drop in public support was not related to failure to pass legislation through the Senate.

Turnbull's strategy is to deal with both of his roadblocks together by linking industrial relations reform of the building and construction industry with Senate reform. The idea is that both his party and his Coalition partner will unite behind him on an iconic conservative parties' issue, thus resolving both his internal and his external problems in one swoop.

That assumption may misread the nature of modern Liberal factional politics. While his internal conservative party opponents are interested in economic and industrial policy, that may no longer be their major interest. Instead they have become new-fangled cultural warriors rather than old-style economic advocates.

The second aspect of getting on top of things for Turnbull is to ultimately win the election and thus a mandate within his own party and with the electorate. This means not just getting re-elected but doing so convincingly. An added bonus would be to win control of both houses of Parliament so putting himself in a rare situation in the modern era.

However, neither successfully treading the path to July 2 nor winning the election convincingly on that day are certain.

Turnbull has laid out a long and uncertain path to July 2. He has recalled Parliament from April 18 for three weeks' discussion and debate of his industrial relations legislation. In doing so he has challenged the crossbench to pass this legislation so as to avoid a double-dissolution trigger.

However, he has also promised that if the legislation is passed he will not bring on a double dissolution. Rather he would hold a normal election at a time of his choosing, perhaps on July 2 or perhaps sometime between August and November.

He must be betting on a double-dissolution election, but he is leaving a lot to circumstances outside his control. If the legislation does pass because two or more micro-party senators back down then he could still use another trigger to call a double dissolution, but that would look like a tricky breach of faith.

If he opts for an ordinary election at a later date then there are two consequences. First, the micro-party senators will be angry. He will have to deal with their humiliation not just until the next election but, in the case of all but Senator John Madigan, until 2019. His control of the Senate by elimination of the micro-parties will be seriously delayed.

Secondly, much will now depend on the reception of the budget. Turnbull must come up with the goods on that day in constrained economic circumstances. It can't be a normal pre-election budget with lots of goodies for voters. Personal income tax-cuts have effectively already been ruled out by Treasurer Scott Morrison.

If there are surprises in the budget, then for Turnbull's sake they must be attractive ones because the electorate is in no mood for further uncertainty. By then, we should all know what sort of election we are going to face and when it will be. We will know whether the first Morrison/Turnbull budget is an election special which must be sold to the public during an election campaign or whether it can be negotiated over many months as usual.

In all of this, the popularity of the government versus Labor and the Greens remains much more uncertain than it appeared likely to be at Christmas. The polls have tightened. Bill Shorten and his party have been given a small sniff of victory and look much more enthusiastic all of a sudden. The Greens are solid in the polls, and will be campaigning on progressive cultural issues.

Turnbull has set out on a long road which might look clearly marked but is still paved with plenty of uncertainty.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.