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Bad budget won’t drive Turnbull to early poll

Gone are the three-word slogans and misguided captain’s picks. What Malcolm Turnbull does with his newfound power remains to be seen, but ns will get their say at the ballot box next year. As with the high-riding Kevin Rudd through 2009, Malcolm Turnbull leads the opposition by an enormous margin heading into an election year and will therefore be mulling over when to capitalise on that and cement another three years in office. Photo: Andrew Meares

Technically, we could still be 13 months from the next election. Thirteen months that is, if the announcement is delayed to the last possible moment, setting a poll date two weeks into 2017.

Of course, a Christmas election won’t ever happen, but other apparently unlikely possibilities may not be so easily dismissed.

Consider the newbie Prime Minister’s election options. As with the high-riding Kevin Rudd through 2009, Malcolm Turnbull leads the opposition by an enormous margin heading into an election year and will therefore be mulling over when to capitalise on that and cement another three years in office.

And like Rudd, he’s being urged by some senior colleagues to jump early, consistent with an old truth in politics: successful prime ministers go to the polls when they believe they can win.

Rudd foolishly ignored this wisdom – after initially satisfying his inner circle at the close of 2009 that he would pull the election lever in the new year. We know how that ended. More importantly, we can imagine how much more favourably it might have gone had he stuck with plan A.

Turnbull’s calculations are not so very different to Rudd’s. He could take the advice of supporters and ask the Governor-General for a March poll, or leave it for a bit longer and go for a May election.

In either case though, he would have to convince the Governor-General that the government was unable to function due to Senate intransigence, thus necessitating a full dissolution of both houses.

Constitutional justifications, or “triggers”, are there now, but the assessment of whether using them would be politically wise is less straightforward. In essence, he must consider public trust – or more pointedly, the risk that an early election would be perceived by voters as opportunistic, and thus as a breach of faith.

Why? Because Turnbull has explicitly flagged going full term on many occasions since taking over. Indeed, from the moment of victory – having delivered up yet another explosive news day in Canberra – his instincts told him voters are weary of the spectacular and are now yearning for boring. More than anything, they want politicians and governments, to stop being so interesting, to get off the front pages, and stay out of their lives. Restoring such orderliness is more or less explicit in Turnbull’s justification for seizing power.

Self-evidently then, a snap poll in the first half of 2016 justified by a legislative crisis bad enough to trigger a double dissolution, would be the antithesis of a new disinterested calm.

All of which points to Turnbull waiting for a standard House and half-Senate election “in the second half of 2016”. Yet the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook unveiled by Treasurer Scott Morrison on Tuesday, has, if anything, rekindled the embers of an early election fire.

The reasons are twofold. First, that the statement itself appeared to duck the hard tasks of budget repair, suggesting the government is already becoming conflict-averse. And second, because it showed that delivering a budget in such difficult circumstances is problematic, whereas an election would obviate such a challenge.

And there’s a third reason, which is more political: an election would necessarily quiet internal dissent coalescing around Tony Abbott and supporters.

The government’s economic narrative, is now more confused than ever. What had been a sacred mission of Abbott and Joe Hockey, to restore balance in 2019-20 and build that to a strong surplus equal to 1 per cent of GDP by 2023-24, has been abandoned.

Morrison used a curious holiday metaphor of kids in the back seat asking “are we there yet?” to explain (to those simpletons among us who thought there was a budget emergency) that the fiscal repair task should be viewed as a road trip, a journey – thus taking time. Labor immediately asked if the driver knew where he was going.

In any event, Morrison’s mental picture did invoke that childhood dream of driving towards the horizon, which of course turns out to be impossible. The idea of something never getting any closer is hardly an ideal foundation from which to sell a credible fiscal recovery strategy.

But the government’s political problems extend well beyond some poorly drawn analogies. For example, the forces that made MYEFO so lacklustre are only strengthening. These include flat wages growth, and falling iron-ore prices, both of which have hit revenue hard.

Then there’s lower overall economic growth with forecasts downgraded from 2.75 per cent to 2.5 per cent in 2015-16, and by 50 basis points in 2016-17 slipping from 3.25 per cent to 2.75 per cent. This latter figure, incidentally, is the new normal, regarded as “trend growth” in Treasury-speak.

In short, the budget repair task has become as politically complicated as it has always been economically. Turnbull has to weigh the greater prospects of an early election win, against the breach of faith it would represent, and the risk it would be painted as avoiding a budget concealing hidden nasties evident only upon re-election. That charge would provide Labor’s sharpest attack.

Tellingly, Turnbull does look to have genuinely changed, having displayed more patience in the February spill attempt than most expected. His judgment then was that Abbott’s structural flaws would inevitably bring him down without outside help. It was a bold non-call and one that turned out to be correct. He is now preparing to make another one.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media’s chief political correspondent.

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