Australians will head to the polls on July 2, after the Senate handed Australian Prime Malcolm Turnbull an election trigger by rejecting legislation aimed at restoring a building industry watchdog. However, with the major political parties now neck and neck in the opinion polls, the unprecedented 75-day campaign will prove testing for both Turnbull and his rival, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, with the prospect of another hung parliament.
On Monday evening, four of the Senate’s eight independent lawmakers voted to reject laws aimed at restoring the previously axed Australian Building and Construction Commission. The rejection by a 36 to 34 vote handed the center-right Liberal Party leader the pretext for a double dissolution poll, the first since 1987, in which every seat in the lower and upper houses will be contested.
While Turnbull is not expected to officially call the poll until after handing down his first budget as leader on May 3, the prime minister confirmed the plan Sunday, when he said defeat of the building bill would lead to a “dissolution of both houses and an election on the 2nd of July.”
Yet neither Turnbull nor Shorten, leader of the center-left Labor Party, have previously led their parties in a federal election campaign, with the marathon contest leaving plenty of room for either candidate to stumble.
Turnbull assumed the prime ministership last September after winning an internal party ballot against Tony Abbott, who had fallen out of favor with voters despite having led the Liberal-National coalition to a landslide election victory in 2013 against Labor. The successful former businessman and republic campaigner cited as one of the reasons for his challenge Abbott’s inability to provide economic leadership and the government’s worsening unpopularity, having lost “30 Newspolls in a row.”
Yet after enjoying a political honeymoon with voters, Turnbull’s image has been battered by his backtracking on tax and other major economic reforms, his refusal to challenge the conservative wing of his party on contentious issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage, and the loss of two ministers due to scandals.
From a “commanding” lead of 56 percent in the opinion polls in November 2015, Labor overcame the deficit to actually lead the Coalition after preferences by 51 to 49 percent in early April’s Newspoll. Turnbull’s own approval rating as prime minister has dived from 69 percent to 51 percent, and while he still comfortably leads Shorten, the latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll has put support for the Coalition and Labor on a knife-edge 50-50, with Coalition support down 3 percentage points since the previous election.
“Malcolm Turnbull can lose this election,” pollster Jessica Elgood told the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), although cautioning that Shorten “would need to improve significantly to give him a chance of being prime minister.”
Turnbull’s policy flip-flops have been severely criticized by voters, with a 25 point drop compared to the October 2015 survey in his perceived ability to “make things happen,” a 20 percent fall in his strength as a leader, a 17 percent drop in his party authority and a 13 percent decline in perceived competence.
However, Turnbull still leads his opponent on all but two of the positive characteristics, with Shorten rated more highly on having the confidence of his party and having a “firm grasp of social policy.”
“The results show that the big realignment of public support is all about Turnbull. Bill Shorten’s poll figures show only minimal change,” wrote SMH political editor Peter Hartcher.
“This isn’t a sweet appreciation for the Opposition Leader but a bitter disappointment with the prime minister.”
The rival Labor Party quickly entered into election mode Monday, with Shorten indicating his favored battlegrounds for the poll.
“Labor’s ready for an election whenever it is. This will be a contest between Labor putting people first, and a Liberal Party looking after vested interests and the big banks,” he said.
“Australians know where Labor stands and what we stand for: decent jobs, protecting Medicare, better schools, renewable energy and a fairer tax system. Australians are fed up with a prime minister who dithers but doesn’t deliver.”
Earlier, Turnbull told ABC TV that the election would be about “jobs and growth,” economic areas where the Coalition has traditionally held the upper hand over Labor.
“Our future depends upon maintaining the strong economic growth we have at the moment and that is why every lever of our policy is pulling in the direction of jobs and growth,” he said, pointing to the nation’s current gross domestic product growth rate at around 3 percent and low unemployment below 6 percent.
“Business confidence is up, consumer confidence is strong and what we need is more of that. What we can’t do is put at risk our successful economic transition from the mining construction boom to a new, more diverse economy. We can’t put that at risk by putting Bill Shorten into the job as prime minister, because we know what his policies will do, just like they did, just like we’re seeing them now. They’ll destroy jobs.”
Just whose job is destroyed in the July polls will depend on whether Turnbull can persuade a skeptical electorate to give him a mandate to make changes that he has thus far proved hesitant to implement.
Should he fail to make his case, the 61-year-old millionaire Sydney businessman and former corporate lawyer faces a major loss in his government’s parliamentary advantage or at worse, defeat by the previous outsider Shorten, the 48-year-old former union leader who was handed his party’s leadership after its traumatic 2013 election loss.
On Monday evening, betting agency Centrebet rated Labor outsiders to win the lower house, at $3.20 versus the Coalition’s $1.34, while Sportsbet had Labor at $3.50 to form government compared to $1.30 for the Coalition.
Labor may not have convinced punters, but the Coalition will not be relaxing anytime soon in the face of its recent poll slide. Its next big test will come with the May budget, with Treasurer Scott Morrison under pressure to pull a rabbit out from under his hat to somehow reduce the federal budget deficit by hiking taxes and curbing spending, but without alienating voters.
Having pledged an innovation revolution for the world’s 12th biggest economy, Turnbull has given himself until July to prove truly innovative in winning the biggest gamble of his political career.