We were promised drama and suspense, the start of a massive showdown in the senate over the Building and Construction Commission bill, a clash of egos leaving us wondering how and when it would end.
And we were hoping for some action in the House of Representatives, too – the session might be rudely truncated, but both government and opposition would set the pre-election scene by belting each other with hyperbole over the atrocities of the unions and the banks respectively – and there might also have been some discussion of Arthur Sinodinos and his role in Liberal Party funding.
But in fact the parliament collapsed with barely a whimper. The ABCC bill, so critical that the entire parliament had to be recalled to debate it, was rejected, done and dusted in just nine hours.
The Australian’s indefatigable Editor at Large Paul Kelly, tried to make yet another comparison with the events of 1975: a recalcitrant senate determined to frustrate the government’s agenda. But of course 1975 was much more than that: it was an opposition, bolstered through the replacement of a dead Labor senator by an utterly unscrupulous state premier to secure the numbers to block supply and it succeeded by an unprecedented act of a pliant Governor-General, who dismissed the elected government.
Last week’s anti-climax left the Prime Minister, after some dithering, in Opposition to announce that he had the grounds for a double dissolution. There was no political or constitutional crisis; all parties except perhaps the mindless Senator Steve Conroy whose comparison to the punctilious viceroy, Peter Cosgrove, to John Kerr completely misses the point: Cosgrove acted on the advice of his Prime Minister and Kerr defied it. It is hardly surprising that one of Conroy’s erstwhile colleagues, Simon Crean, once remarked: “Steve’s really not so bad – until you get to know him.”
But on with the story, or rather the non-story. The government, in a panicky reaction to Bill Shorten’s widely welcomed call for a Royal Commission on the banks, replied with what it claimed was a ramping up of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which it said would allow it to undertake proactive investigations.
It turned out that the money, which was to come from the banks themselves rather than funds that the government would previously cut, was not nearly as much as it looked: more than half of it was for capital grants to replace new equipment and the remainder, spread over three years, was woefully inadequate for what was needed for staff numbers and their foraging.
But even before its money had been cut by the Abbott government, ASIC had proved itself to be a toothless tiger, especially where the banks were concerned; so it was entirely predictable that the banks applauded the decision, and that some of them defied the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, by refusing to rule out passing their additional costs on to the long-suffering customers. Somewhat belatedly, there was also a promise of more money for the Federal Police, who have so far been equally ineffective in the area.
If we are going to have an election about whether the voters hate the unions or the banks worse, there is really no contest. However Malcolm Turnbull soldiered on, and announced that there would be more emphasis on cyber-security because some body had hacked the site of the Bureau of Meteorology – a move which Shorten immediately endorsed and which the public neither knew nor cared about. Then there was the dental scheme, which looked like a hastily contrived fix which the opposition branded a hoax. And the week ended with Turnbull confirming what we already knew: negative gearing is off the table. Turnbull said it would protect the value of the homes of mums and dads; but while there may, perhaps, be some mums and dads eager to sell off overpriced houses in order to purchase new overpriced houses, there are almost certainly more mums and dads who are keen to see prices fall so that their children can get into the market. At best, a dubious ploy at the start of an election.
The impression was that the government, having embarked on the crash or crash through course to take the plunge for an election, was scrabbling for a convincing story for proroguing one parliament with unseemly haste, setting up a new one without an explanation for doing so (after all, it already had a double dissolution trigger – why all the fuss?) and then playing catch up to the opposition while it waits, in desperate hope, for a budget which will make it all plausible.
And there is still a week to go. In the meantime the senate has done its work with the ABCC, but has planted a time bomb or two; an inquiry into electoral funding in NSW and the forced inquisition of Senator Arthur Sinodinos as part of the process – he may have escaped Mark Dreyfus but he will not be able to avoid Sam Dastyari.
And some fairly elementary numerological research makes it clear that after all the angst over the electoral reform process, the new senate is likely to be as least as diverse as the old one, with the consequent bafflement of Malcolm Turnbull in his search for a mandate anyone will acknowledge.
And as for the election itself –it is not looking the picnic it was looking a few months ago. On the current polls, even if the government sneaks back, it may not be able to gather the numbers to pass its cherished ABCC bill through a joint sitting of parliament. There will be independent candidates to deal with – the last thing Turnbull wants is a collection of the disenchanted heckling from a gaggle cross benchers, but he is likely to have to put up with a few of them and even to accommodate some.
Turnbull may still have a master plan, but at the moment it is looking like a confusion turning into a cock-up. The budget just might be the game changer; but given the recent performances of both Turnbull and Morrison, you wouldn’t want to put your overpriced house on it.
Mungo MacCallam is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.