Monday, May 18, 2009

No Double Dissolution Just Yet

Well, after all of the blood and thunder of budget week, with the Opposition Leader accusing the Prime Minister of rushing to an early election, while being reported as calling the government’s bluff, the whole thing has turned into a damp squib. After seeing Malcolm Turnbull standing up in the parliament, to all intents and purposes challenging the government to bring it on, it would be easy to get the impression that an early election would suit him just fine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Last week I asked just who was bluffing who, and although the question was obviously rhetorical, the opposition have given a clear answer with its abrupt reversal on the question of the alcopops tax increase.

In order for the Prime Minister to be in a position to “rush to an early election”, there must be a trigger for calling it, at least if there is to be a double dissolution, and without that there is not much point. For a double dissolution to be called, the government must have had a piece of legislation rejected twice by the senate in a period of not less than three months. The alcopops legislation, originally rejected so dramatically by the combination of the opposition and the lone Families First Senator Steve Fielding, has been re-introduced by the government and would have been such a trigger if it had been rejected again. But instead, after all of the chest thumping last week, the opposition has quietly decided to wave it through without any further resistance.

Originally, the opposition opposed the alcopops tax hike on the grounds that it was simply a revenue measure masquerading as health policy. Now they say that they support it for the very same reason, pointing to the budget bottom line and claiming that they don’t want to do anything to add to the deficit. Quite aside from the obvious point that the distinction between a revenue measure with health benefits as compared to a health measure with revenue benefits is really just a case of excessive pedantry, I have to wonder does this mean that the opposition will also backflip on its promise to block the introduction of a means test on the private health insurance rebate? I seriously doubt it, but by their own logic, they could, and will, be accused of placing greater strain on the budget bottom line.

The opposition could also be accused of hypocrisy, and of not having a coherent policy on anything other than a policy of opposing government measures for the sake of opposition. That would not be entirely fair, as the private health insurance matter is an ideology close to the Liberal heart, and linked to their central political philosophy. I would expect that their opposition to the government’s proposal on that will be more robust than has been their stand on alcohol. Either way though, the coalition is unlikely to be in a hurry for an election, and last week’s bravado was more about style than substance, as illustrated by the opposition’s reluctance to load the double dissolution gun for the government.

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