07 April 2016
by Phillip Coorey

Malcolm Turnbull running for cover: Labor

Labor is accusing the Turnbull government of running for cover amid confirmation the House of Representatives will sit for as few as five days over the three-week special period for which Parliament was recalled to set the scene for a double-dissolution election.

Malcolm Turnbull invoked rare Constitutional powers to force Parliament back for three weeks on April 18 during which he will give the Senate one last chance to pass two key pieces of industrial relations legislation, or face a July 2, double dissolution.

But the House of Representatives, which the government controls, is likely to sit only on Monday and Tuesday of the first week, not at all during the second week, and then come back for three days in the third week, starting on budget day, May 3, said a senior source. This would see the House sit on five days out of a possible 11, sparing the government six periods of question time.

With expectation building that Mr Turnbull will not get a deal with the Senate crossbench to pass the bills – one to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and another to establish a Registered Organisations Commission – the government will use the period to further link the Labor opposition to corrupt union behaviour and build momentum for the impending campaign.

"Lawlessness in the construction sector is a big economic brake on our continued development," the Prime Minister said on Tuesday.

But Labor is planning a counterattack over corruption inside the Liberal Party, especially the NSW branch which is being denied $4.4 million in public electoral funding because of a trust called the Free Enterprise Foundation which disguised and channelled almost $700,000 in donations, some of which were illegal. Cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos has become entangled in the controversy.

Hard attack
Labor is also planning to hit the government hard over divisions between Mr Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison, and a decision last week that the Commonwealth should stop funding public schools. Labor leader Bill Shorten will this week write to every public school principal in Australia pledging support.

The decision to minimise exposure to question time during the special sitting period was made before the publication on Tuesday of a Newspoll showing the Coalition trailing Labor for the first time since Mr Turnbull took the leadership from Tony Abbott.

Labor frontbencher and manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, said Mr Turnbull's plan to recall Parliament had backfired and he was now seeking to avoid scrutiny.

"When he asked for the Parliament to be recalled, there was no mention of the House of Representatives rising after a couple of days," he said.

"Now he's realised there will be scrutiny of Liberal Party donations and of corporate tax avoidance and he's running a mile from question time."

A government source rejected the accusation, saying the whole point was to have the Senate debate the bills after it wasted a whole week last time filibustering over Senate voting reform.

The Newspoll had the government trailing Labor by 51 per cent to 49 per cent on a two party-preferred basis and Mr Turnbull's once stratospheric personal ratings continuing to fall.
Mr Turnbull, who cited 30 consecutive deficits in Newspoll as the reason for replacing Mr Abbott, said he did not comment on polls. Mr Shorten warned against hubris. "Pride comes before the fall," he said.