20 April 2016
by Phillip Coorey

Australia to go to the polls on July 2 after Senate gives Malcolm Turnbull DD trigger

Australians will go to the polls on July 2 in the first double dissolution election in almost three decades after the Senate refused to pass a key industrial relations bill designed to boost the regulation of unions.

With Labor and the Greens opposed, and the government needing the support of at least six of the eight Senate independent crossbenchers, the government was two votes short of the numbers required to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It was rejected by 36 votes to 34.

Consequently, Australia is now in a quasi-election campaign for a full-Senate election still 10 weeks away.

But Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will not officially call the election until after he has handed down the budget on May 3, Labor leader Bill Shorten gives his response two days later and the supply bills are passed.

If Mr Turnbull were to call the election now, Parliament would be dissolved and the government relegated to caretaker status, unable to finalise or hand down a budget which now doubles as the election launch for the government.

Parliament was recalled on Monday for a special sitting in which the Senate was given three weeks to pass two industrial relations bills – one to re-establish the ABCC and one to establish a registered organisations commission to oversee unions and employer groups.

Mr Turnbull told the Senate it had to pass both bills or they would act as triggers for a July 2 double dissolution. Despite weeks of pre-positioning by both sides, no one budged on Monday.

Crossbenchers said the government made no effort to contact them to discuss their various demands and they made no effort to contact the government.

At the final vote, crossbenchers Nick Xenophon, Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm and Dio Wang voted for the ABCC while Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and John Madigan voted against.

The bill to re-establish the ABCC, which had already been rejected once by the Senate, was defeated again on Monday night, giving Mr Turnbull his trigger.

Mr Turnbull will comment on Tuesday but Labor leader Bill Shorten went straight into campaign mode.

"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."

The historic day also saw Governor-General Peter Cosgrove come under attack from Labor frontbencher Stephen Conroy for his role in organising the special sittings. Senator Conroy was rebuked by Mr Shorten.

As the Senate was winding up its debate, cabinet was also meeting to try and neutralise Labor's politically popular decision to hold a royal commission into the banks. It signed off on a range of measures boosting the powers and resources of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission which could be announced as early as Tuesday.

The swift resolution of the trade union bills means Parliament will sit Tuesday to pass laws to scrap Gillard government laws which mandated minimum pay rates for truck drivers. The government rammed that bill through the lower house on Monday night, gagging debate to do so. The Parliament will then most likely rise and not sit again until May 2, the day before the budget. That will be the last sitting week before the election.

The only guaranteed vote the government had in the Senate was that of South Australian Bob Day. Senator Day pleaded with his colleagues to a least vote for the ABCC bill at what is called the second reading stage so they could at least try and negotiate amendments in the third and final phase of the bill.

But those demanding amendments declared the cause lost.

Queensland Senator Lazarus and Tasmanian Senator Lambie, both of who are confident they will be re-elected in a double dissolution in which only half the quota of votes is required to secure a spot, said they would not be changing their views.

Senator Lazarus had demanded the government consider a national corruption body while Senator Lambie said she was against the ABCC bill because it breached the rule of law and basic civil liberties.

"This could be a very, very good bill," he said.

Motoring Enthusiasts Party Senator Muir, who will struggle to hold his spot in the election, said he was voting against the ABCC on principle after the government refused to consider his demands, including new powers to pursue employee entitlements and sham contracting.

Senator Muir said if the government would not consider his reasonable amendments, the Coalition should bring the ABCC bill to a vote "and proceed with what it wants – an early election".

Senator Madigan, whose term has expired, opposed the bill outright. David Leyonhjelm was prepared to support it so long as there was an eight-year sunset clause.

Mr Turnbull, who left the negotiations up to his Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, was equally intransigent, saying the government was not prepared to negotiate on the ABCC and it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

"Our objective is to get the bills passed...and we urge the cross-benchers to vote for them," he said before the vote.

"They're very familiar with the legislation. It has been in the Senate before, and it's been to many committees. So it's well known and well understood and we encourage them to vote for it".

He said he had previously tried to reason with the crossbench, including over dinner at The Lodge.

The government now heads towards the first double dissolution since 1987 tied with Labor in the public opinion polls.

The latest Fairfax/Ipsos poll had Labor and the government tied at 50 per cent on the two-party-preferred basis while the Newspoll had Labor leading the government by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

With Mr Turnbull still the preferred prime minister over Mr Shorten, Labor laid claim to the underdog status.

"We are still the underdog. It's a one-term government, and we all know how hard that mountain is to climb," Senator Penny Wong said.

The Coalition attempted to talk down the results, claiming they were expected.

"Australian elections are always tightly fought", Senator Brandis said, adding that the results are where Coalition "would have expected them to be in this stage in the cycle".