Australia’s political leaders slipped into full election mode over the traditionally sleepy Christmas/New Year summer holiday period with road trips to regional Australia, and visits to retirement homes and childcare centres. All the while speculation has mounted that this first week of the 2019 parliament session would bring a fiery round of votes, and even trigger an early federal election. Earlier than May 18, that is.
The most controversial vote in this week’s session was as a result of the Bill introduced by the conservative Independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps, to allow sick asylum seekers currently living in offshore detention centres to travel to Australia for medical treatment on the say so of two independent doctors.
Labelled a ‘defacto no confidence’ vote in the government, the Bill was strongly resisted by the Prime Minister and his team, who painted it as the thin end of the people smuggling wedge. Indeed, within minutes of losing the vote, the Morrison Government branded the law a dangerous security risk that would weaken Australia’s borders. Their argument is that hordes of dangerous vagabonds, including terrorists, will now come to Australia’s shores and put our safety at risk, much as US President Donald Trump has framed his Mexican wall argument. And the Government has signalled that it will campaign on this issue, putting the blame on the Labor Opposition – which supported Dr Phelps Bill – and labelling it ‘soft on border security’.
For political watchers the vote had the extra frisson of history; it is the first defeat of a government in the lower house of parliament (where Australian governments are formed) in 90 years. The historic loss comes on top of the Coalition Government’s consistently poor opinion polls, that many commentators claim signal a trouncing at this year’s election.
Despite the speculation and debate about so-called ‘early triggers’, the election will be held in May. Indeed, for most of this year, the Prime Minister has repeatedly said it would be May (and he even hinted it last year).
But when in May?
For all sorts of complicated constitutional reasons, as well as the crowded Australian sporting calendar, the March 23 NSW election, Easter holidays, Anzac Day commemorations, and an early Budget in April (when it is usually May), the federal election is most likely to be May 18.
So what happens until then?
The reality is that next week will be the last sitting days until the election. There are sitting days scheduled for the House of Representatives from April 15-18, but this is unlikely to happen. Little wonder then that the Opposition has this week been trying desperately to embarrass the Prime Minister into extending the current session because, it says, it is necessary to debate the recent recommendations from the Banking Royal Commission. Why would the Prime Minister do that? The Royal Commission is seen as a major negative for his government, not least because it resisted it so steadfastly.
Then there is the Budget.
Not long after being appointed this government’s third Prime Minister, in August last year, Scott Morrison announced that the Budget will be brought forward to April 2nd. This was considered unusual and a sign of an early election. The Budget is customarily delivered on the first sitting Tuesday in May, and signals the government’s spending commitments over the coming financial year. The Opposition then delivers its speech in reply two days later (now on April 4) where it lays out its economic vision. This is then followed by the Senate Budget Estimates hearings (now on 8-12 April), where the budget and the government’s assumptions will be tested by members of parliament. A lot lies on these hearings for both sides as they woo electors into believing they have the best plan for Australia’s tax payers.
As we know, the rest of April is taken up with Easter (19-22) and Anzac Day (25). The close proximity of these holidays this year means a ten day vacation period for many workers, who will most likely not be listening to election banter.
Nonetheless, April will be a big month in Australia’s capital. Television cameras will be positioned at Government house for signs of the Prime Minister making the customary drive to the Governor General’s residence to ask him to dissolve parliament and allow for the campaign proper to begin along with the concomitant caretaker period. The simple calendar maths has this on the weekend of April 13-14, with the dissolution of parliament occurring on April 15 to allow the minimum 33 days for the election period.
By Jacquelynne Willcox, Managing Director, Powell Tate Australia.