(8 May 2016)

Election date confirmed as 2 July, campaign is now officially underway

The Prime Minister, Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, has made a rain-soaked journey through Canberra’s inner-southern suburbs to Government House at Yarralumla to make a formal request to the Governor-General for a double-dissolution election on Saturday, 2 July. 

  • Mr Turnbull is aiming to retain power for the Liberal Party-Nationals conservative coalition, while the Leader of the Opposition, Hon Bill Shorten MP, will be hoping to create history and lead the progressive Australian Labor Party back into office after just one term in opposition. The last one-term government in Australia was in 1929-1931.
  • As many Australians are aware, Mr Turnbull forged a successful career as a journalist, lawyer, founder of a large IT company and head of the Australian Republican Movement before entering Parliament in 2004. He was a Minister in the Howard Government and had an unsuccessful stint as Leader of the Opposition from 2008-2009. Mr Shorten worked as a lawyer, political advisor and union leader before entering Parliament in 2007. He was a Minister in the previous Labor Government. Before entering politics, Mr Shorten attracted national headlines as the union leader who assisted two workers trapped below ground (they were eventually freed) when a mine collapsed in Tasmania almost exactly 10 years ago, in 2006.
  • It will be Australia’s first double-dissolution election since 1987 (when Labor was returned to office).

Key policy issues
  • Coalition – The economy: The key message used by the Treasurer, Hon Scott Morrison MP, has and will continue to be “jobs and growth”; the Federal Budget, which was handed down last Tuesday, was described as a “national economic plan”.
  • Labor – Education and health: Mr Shorten will run hard on education and health, and is pushing the message he will “put people first”, if elected to the top job.

The first shots

Both leaders held their first media conferences of the campaign a short time ago.

  • Speaking in Canberra, Mr Turnbull emphasised the Coalition’s jobs and growth mantra, saying a return to Labor would result in higher taxes and higher levels of public debt. He pointed to recent major defence and employment announcements, and the importance in the future of services industries, including tourism and agriculture.
  • Speaking in Launceston, Tasmania, Mr Shorten signalled Labor’s clear attack points, saying it is more united than the Coalition and Mr Turnbull made no reference to climate change during his media conference. Mr Shorten said Labor will focus on education, health and, as part of his climate change commitment, renewable energy.

Opinion polls and betting odds

After wresting the prime ministership from Hon Tony Abbott MP in a leadership coup in September 2015, Mr Turnbull enjoyed a honeymoon period in the polls until the end of last year. The Coalition’s standing has since dropped away to the point where a month ago, it fell behind Labor on a two-party preferred basis for the first time since Mr Turnbull became leader (49-51).

  • The most recent Newspoll, released on 18 April, showed the Coalition still trailing Labor 49-51.
  • Mr Turnbull has always held an edge over Mr Shorten as preferred prime minister and although the 18 April Newspoll still had Mr Turnbull ahead 47 per cent to 28 as preferred prime minister, the gap is well down on the 39-point margin Mr Turnbull had on this score at the beginning of 2016.
  • A short time ago, bet365 listed the Coalition at $1.33 to win and Labor at $3.25.

Despite the closeness of the polls on a two-party preferred basis, most commentators are expecting the Coalition to win the election – but with a vastly reduced majority (it currently holds 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and Labor holds 55; the other five seats are held by minor parties/independents). Despite this, Labor can win the election. In essence, this means while the Coalition is favoured to win, an upset is not out of the question.

What’s different this time?
  • Double-dissolution election – All 226 seats in of the House of Representatives and the Senate will be decided at the upcoming election. At “normal” elections, only half of the 76-seat Senate is up for re-election. The double-dissolution election was triggered because the Senate twice failed to pass legislation which would have reinstated a “watchdog” for the building and construction industry.
  • Long campaign – The election campaign will last for eight weeks, making it one of the longest ever campaigns. Many are expecting this will work in favour of Mr Shorten and Labor.
  • New Senate voting rules – The election will be the first to take place under new voting rules for the Senate. The new rules simplify the process of voters filling out voting forms and minor parties are no longer able to swap preferences to secure seats. The new rules will make it more difficult for low-profile independents to win Senate seats.

Key battlegrounds

The key marginal seats where the election will be decided are, by and large, located in north Queensland, outer-suburban Brisbane, northern NSW, the NSW Central Coast, western Sydney, Tasmania, SA and WA. Not forgetting the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro. Since 1972, this regional NSW electorate, which surrounds Canberra, has been held by the party which has formed government.

  • WA is the state to watch: The Coalition holds all but three of the federal seats in WA, however the conservative state government is unpopular and with the federal Coalition set to lose seats, the key Coalition-held marginals of Swan, Cowan and Hasluck could be in doubt. A new, notional-Liberal seat (Burt) will add to the intrigue in WA.

The X-factors
  • Former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott: Mr Abbott promised not to undermine Mr Turnbull’s leadership, but this hasn’t stopped Mr Abbott from speaking publicly about policy issues he feels strongly about, creating difficulties for Mr Turnbull. However, in the past few weeks, Mr Abbott appears to have changed his messaging to underline the importance of the Coalition being re-elected. Should the type of internal divisions which sabotaged Labor’s 2010 election campaign after it removed a sitting prime minister surface within the Coalition during the campaign, it could result in the Coalition losing additional seats.
  • High-profile independent Senator Nick Xenophon: On the strength of his enormous popularity in his home state of SA, Senator Nick Xenophon is set to play a major role during and beyond this election campaign. Under the banner of his new political party, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), he will be re-elected and is set to be joined in the Senate by other NXT candidates. There is a strong chance he could hold the balance of power in the Senate in the next Parliament. He could even win a seat or seats in the House of Representatives, most likely in SA.

How Senator Xenophon distributes his preferences among the major parties will have a significant bearing on the outcome of seats in SA.

Engagement during the campaign

Engagement between business and government during election campaigns is usually relatively limited, with the exception of fundraising events and public appearances, however, the unusually long campaign means things could be different in 2016. If a campaign announcement directly impacts on business, then engagement could be both necessary and possible. Given the heightened level of sensitivity which exists in an election campaign environment, engagement – including any public response by business to campaign announcements – must be even more carefully considered and, as always, conducted in a strategic way.

The latest “Guidance on Caretaker Conventions” which has been released by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet states:

“The business of government continues and ordinary matters of administration still need to be addressed. However, successive governments have followed a series of practices, known as the ‘caretaker conventions’, which aim to ensure that their actions do not bind an incoming government and limit its freedom of action. In summary, the conventions are that the government avoids: making major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government; making significant appointments; and entering major contracts or undertakings.

Quotable quote

In yesterday’s “Weekend Australian” newspaper, a former Chief of Staff to Mr Turnbull, Chris Kenny, highlighted the challenges facing the Coalition:

“The Government is defensive, ill-disciplined and vague. If this doesn’t improve, the Coalition will lose.”

What’s next?
  • Major announcements – The Federal Budget was very light-on for major spending commitments for an election-year financial statement. Therefore, expect the Government to make many significant funding announcements throughout the campaign, particularly in key marginal seats.
  • Election advertising – Election advertising will bombard our screens (including on the internet and social media), radio programs and newspapers. Much of it will be negative, i.e. it will focus on the deficiencies of the leaders and the policies of the major parties.