Sometime next week, Australia’s accidental PM will have to make a diabolical decision – whether to call a ‘snap’ election just after Australia Day for March 2, or paint himself into a corner by waiting for the scheduled election in mid-May.
Regrettably for the PM, Scott Morrison, neither option is more politically wise or safe than the other – he’s likely to lose the election either way.
It would be excruciatingly tempting for Mr Morrison to pop in to Yarralumla next Sunday to see the Governor-General and then kick off the election campaign with a quick press conference at Parliament House.
The PM’s Liberal colleagues in the NSW government would be considerably grateful, in the hopeful anticipation that unhappy voters in that state would take out their anger on the party at the national poll in early March and be more reasonable at the state election, which is already set for late March.
If the PM did go early, it wouldn’t necessarily be an act of generosity for one of the few remaining Liberal governments in Australia. He’d do it to avoid federal Parliament resuming in February, and the political humiliations that will face him there.
You might recall that Parliament dissolved in furore at the end of 2018 as the Morrison government used a few parliamentary tricks to close proceedings for the year before being embarrassed by an expected defeat in the House of Representatives.
That defeat would have been over legislation passed by the Senate to make it possible for refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention to be brought to Australia for medical reasons.
The government opposed such moves, while Labor and the Greens teamed up with likeminded independents to get the bill through the Senate and were expected to use the same tactics in the House of Representatives.
While the Parliament passing legislation against the government’s wishes is not necessarily enough to bring that ruling party down, losing control of the Parliament in this way sends a very clear signal to voters that the government is a dead duck.
There’s every chance the government could lose another important vote, with key crossbenchers signalling they would support a Labor move to refer Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to the High Court over eligibility concerns.
PM Morrison can’t afford for events such as these to condemn him as a Dead Man Walking three months out from the election (any more than he is already), which is why it would be so tempting to skip Parliament and head straight for the polls. The problem, of course, is that, according to the opinion polls, the Coalition is too far behind Labor to be able to make up the ground by March.
If he doesn’t succumb to the temptation of a March election, the PM will essentially be locked in for an election on May 11 or 18, following the NSW election in March and a federal budget in early April. This means the federal election campaign will overlap with school holidays in every state and territory as well as the Easter and Anzac Day holidays.
Most voters will then be surprised to discover on their return to work on Monday, April 29, that Australia is in the middle of an election campaign, with only two or three weeks out of a five-week campaign left to go.
Perhaps the PM’s brains trust thinks this would be a good thing – that voters returning from school holidays will have miraculously forgotten that the Morrison government lost control of the Parliament in February and any other political disasters that may detonate between now and May. They won’t.
And even if they did, the same logic would mean voters will have also forgotten whatever goodies were promised in the budget, which has been brought forward to April.
Or perhaps the strategists think it’s only a matter of time until the Labor opposition implodes. It won’t.
No matter which way you look at it, Mr Morrison is literally damned if he does call an ‘early’ election in March, and damned if he doesn’t. We won’t know for a while whether he made the ‘right’ decision, but in just over a week, we’ll finally know what that decision is.