Tuesday, March 17

The big gamble – go for double, or back off?

As they make their plays across the Canberra chessboard, our federal politicians seem to be locking themselves into the ultimate high stakes end game – a double dissolution of Federal Parliament.

A month ago, we did hear talk of double dissolution. Now it seems to have been forgotten as the nation entertains itself with the side play between Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and “will he or won't he” former Treasurer Peter Costello.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd could be forgiven for thinking: “Bring it on!” Only last week The Australian's Newspoll showed public support for Rudd as preferred prime minister stood at 61 per cent with Turnbull on 21 per cent.

If a general election took place today, Rudd would romp home with a substantially increased majority in the House of Representatives – but once again, he might fail to obtain clear control of the Senate. The electorate's will might still be thwarted by the Coalition joined by a petulant and flaky independent senator or two.

This week, Rudd must be hoping the Senate will reject, or agree to pass only with unacceptable amendments, those of his bills which have strong public support. Industrial relations or the economic stimulus package would be ideal. (As Lenore Taylor reports in The Australian today, the government appears to have given up on emissions trading – a wise tactic, politically, because the public is confused and fearful about emissions control in hard economic times).

Senate rejection of a Labor bill could be the first step in handing Rudd a “trigger” for a double dissolution.

And a double dissolution could hand Senate control to the government. In a normal general election, all House of Reps members but only half the senators have to face the electors. A double dissolution is the only time every member of the Senate as well as all the Reps must stand down.

Most of our federal politicians are about to head home for their long autumn holiday, leaving ministers and staff beavering away on the May Budget. What a gift for Rudd if the Senate rejected his industrial relations or stimulus package before they left!

And wouldn't it be icing on the cake if the Liberals dumped Turnbull and had Peter Costello sitting on the Opposition Leader's bench when parliament resumed!

The Newspoll last week showed that 49 per cent of Coalition supporters prefer Costello, with only 28 per cent backing Turnbull. In the parliamentary Liberal Party, it's believed Costello would win in a leadership spill.

The right wing of today's Liberals are so out of touch with mainstream Australia they believe Costello could win the next election. Weird, but they are getting desperate.

Under Section 57 of the Constitution, Rudd would have the right to ask the Governor-General for a double dissolution if:

    • The Reps passes a bill and sends it to the Senate, which rejects it, fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments unacceptable to the Reps.
    • After three months, the Reps again passes the bill and sends it to the Senate, which again rejects it or makes unacceptable amendments.

That's the “trigger” for a double dissolution. This Australian Electoral Commission site also explains the timetable from dissolution to polling date.

For Rudd, it would be good politics to pile up the “triggers” – to go to the electors with a list of popular bills rejected by the Senate, so that he could run a campaign about conservatives thwarting the people's will.

It is a high risk game. Either side could blink when it comes to that second attempt to pass the bill. Turnbull is aware of the perils of rejecting legislation for which Labor has a popular mandate, such as IR, but Costello and his supporters seem so ideologically committed they'd commit political suicide.

On the other hand, if Rudd felt the ground moving against him, he could decide against that drive to see the Governor-General.

Tacticians in the federal parties are watching the Queensland elections closely, as you'd expect. If an unimpressive politician like Lawrence Springborg can win, it will give an enormous boost to the hard-right federal Libs.

It's going to be fascinating year in federal politics.

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