13 March 2016
by Lenore Taylor
So much about this Australian election is unknown; timing is the least of our worries
Malcolm Turnbull has Canberra in a fever to know his election plans.
Hundreds of thousands of students are swotting through their final years of high school right now, pondering what to do with their lives. But they have no idea what university courses are going to cost in the future or even whether they will still be offered under the Coalition’s yet-to-be-announced policy.
Universities are begging for policy certainty. The government has offered none – fuelling speculation that the Abbott government’s 20% spending cut and the resultant increase in the cost of degrees will remain when the policy is finally unveiled, maybe in the budget, or maybe during the election campaign. Labor has promised a net increase in funding, $2.5bn over the first four years and $13.8bn over the next decade. It says this means degrees should be cheaper.
Thousands of women are pregnant right now and don’t know what paid maternity leave they will be entitled to. Last December the Turnbull government tweaked the Abbott government’s already drastically revised paid parental leave policy – but it is still proposing arrangements that would cut the entitlements of mothers who get maternity leave from their employers as well as from the state, for some by $10,000 or more. The changes are supposed to come into effect in July. They have not yet been presented in legislation. Labor opposes them. Those same families are probably pretty interested to know what childcare subsidies they’ll be entitled to. That government policy – also heavily revised – is also in Senate limbo.
Hundreds of thousands of people are planning for their retirement right now. They don’t know whether the Coalition will push ahead with plans to gradually increase the pension age to 70 – still officially policy, but rejected by the Senate. And they don’t know what changes the Coalition will make to superannuation. Best guess is a reduction in the caps on contributions, but it’s still a guess. Labor will reduce tax breaks on the superannuation earnings of the wealthiest retirees.
Most Australians rely on public hospitals in a medical emergency but their future is also unclear. State governments, and now the Australian Medical Association, are warning that the $57b in cuts in Abbott’s first budget are about to create a funding “crisis”, a crisis that will mean patients wait longer for treatment and some services will have to close. As Guardian Australia revealed in February, Turnbull is in talks with premiers to offer some additional money to tide the system over while deeper changes are negotiated. But it remains unclear whether they can do a deal.
Many Australians are also concerned about climate change, but as things stand neither major party has a detailed climate policy that could meet Australia’s international greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Labor has a vague commitment to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme and reach 50% renewable energy. The Coalition continues to insist, contrary to most expert opinion, that its Direct Action policy is fit for purpose.
Political parties have always saved policies to be unveiled with great fanfare during election campaigns. But for the third election in a row the government is being led by a different prime minister than the one the public elected the last time, leaving policies and political direction uncertain.
And that uncertainty is exacerbated by the $10b in former Abbott government policies gathering dust somewhere outside the Senate chamber – zombie policies still technically the government’s live options and still calculated into the figuring of the federal budget, but politically dead.
But these policies, critical one way or the other to the everyday lives of most Australians, are not what is causing the government to push the emergency button on Australia’s constitutional provisions to break deadlocks between the houses of parliament by calling a double dissolution election. The Turnbull government does not cite them as examples of “Senate obstruction”.
In fact it’s not clear what the government wants to do with them, whether they will live or die when the government finally gets around to telling us its priorities. And even if they live, they are not lined up as double dissolution triggers that can then be passed at a joint sitting of the houses of parliament after a double dissolution poll. And for most of them there now isn’t enough time to get into that line-up.
They are far more important to most Australians than the industrial relations laws that will be used to justify any double dissolution poll, the ones Malcolm Turnbull talked up on Sydney radio on Friday. But they seem to have been left off the list because the government hasn’t figured out its direction.
Meanwhile, the political “debate” seems fixated on the date of the budget and the related question of the date of the election, and whether it will be a double dissolution, parsing the prime minister’s language and reading deep meaning into the fact that there has been a May 3 booking in the parliament’s main function hall. Aha, the sleuths cried, that must be a post-budget function after a budget brought down a week earlier than usual, which would mean an early election, which would mean ... well, we don’t know what that means in the case of a re-elected Turnbull government because we’re still in the dark about policies – far more so than is usual for this point in the electoral cycle.
Instead of asking questions or demanding answers about what the government wants to do if it is re-elected, we are stuck on the question of when the election itself will be held.
Sure, we’d all like to know the date of the election. And yes, it would be a significant and risky tactical decision by Malcolm Turnbull to hold a double dissolution and a long campaign.
But the “what” questions and the “why” questions are far more important than the “when” question, especially since the answer to the “when” question can only possibly vary by a couple of months either way.
We have been obsessing about the wrong question.