A furious row over “sneaky” tactics has erupted over the date for five federal byelections across four states, as the Turnbull puts its $144 billion in personal tax cuts at the heart of its pitch at the ballot box.
Almost 500,000 Australians will go to the “super Saturday” polls on July 28, in a decision that wrecks Labor’s plan to hold its national conference on the same day and has sparked accusations of “partisan” moves to give the government an unfair advantage.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will hold talks with colleagues on whether to move the national conference, which was scheduled for months and is expected to draw about 1500 attendees, in order to free up volunteers to work for Labor at the polls.
The decision pushes the byelections back by several weeks to put in new safeguards to prevent candidates falling foul of citizenship rules, but it also gives the government more time to fight the campaign on sweeping tax reforms it wants decided by the end of June.
Preparing for the campaigns, Treasurer Scott Morrison used question time to contrast the government’s $144 billion in personal income tax cuts over a decade with Labor’s alternative plan for $70 billion in cuts.
That contrast will underpin a government campaign where it will promise bigger tax cuts than Labor, while it also gains time to consider changes to company tax cuts that appear doomed in the Senate in their current form.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Victorian Liberal MP Tony Smith, stunned Labor by naming July 28 as the byelection date after citing advice from the Australian Electoral Commission that it needed several weeks to prepare the process.
Labor manager of opposition business Tony Burke declared it was a “what a coincidence moment” because the date overlapped with the Labor conference.
Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek blamed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a “disgraceful delay” to gain time to dump the “toxic” company tax cuts before the byelections.
“It would appear this has been deliberately designed to disadvantage the Labor Party, given our national conference is scheduled for that weekend,” she said.
Mr Smith insisted he had acted on independent advice and released two letters from Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, one on May 17 and the other on May 23, that set out key factors including the new citizenship process and the school holidays in early July.
In a rapid series of political moves, Labor Senate leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong recalled AEC officials including Mr Rogers to face questions in Senate estimates hearings.
Mr Rogers told the hearing he had provided independent advice and had to take into account the time required to set up the new process to prevent more MPs being forced to quit Parliament because their citizenship status falls foul of Section 44 of the constitution.
“My advice to the Speaker is to give every candidate time to put together information they need to comply with the new requirements,” Mr Rogers said.
Senator Wong said the timeline was “demonstrably” and “substantially” different to previous byelections and that this looked partisan.
“Are you saying that I am partisan?” Mr Rogers asked.
“I am saying that this looks partisan, the timeframes,” Senator Wong replied.
In a ferocious line of questioning extending over hours, Senator Wong and her colleagues challenged the AEC decision while Mr Rogers denied any suggestion of bias and said the commission often came under criticism from both sides of politics.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann interrupted to accuse Labor of causing the problem in the first place, given that three of the byelections were triggered by three Labor MPs – Susan Lamb, Justine Keay and Josh Wilson.
“These byelections would have happened a long time ago if those members who knew they were sitting in federal parliament in breach of section 44 of the constitution had resigned when that was obvious,” Senator Cormann said.
“If Bill Shorten hadn’t run a protection racket for these members, and provided a rolled-gold guarantee of the magnificent vetting process in the Labor Party, these byelections would have long happened.”
In a consultation over weeks, Mr Rogers wrote to Mr Smith on May 17 to name July 28 as the “next available date” for the byelections and wrote again on May 23 to recommend the date because of the “unique circumstances” of the regulations.
“A July 28 poll date is optimal,” Mr Rogers wrote in the second letter, naming factors including the school holidays in early July, the new regulations and the time needed for the AEC to set up the process.
The new process includes a form for all candidates to fill out online, producing information that can be extracted and published. As well, the AEC will produce “educative materials” for candidates and parties and will run advertising campaigns to explain the citizenship rules.
“Rushing the process may risk providing an advantage to the major parties and disenfranchising independent and minor party candidates,” Mr Rogers wrote in his advice to the Speaker on May 23.