The government must end its pointless pussy-footing with the Senate and announce it plans to ask the Governor-General for a double dissolution in the New Year. For its own sake and Australia’s, the Coalition should next week present the Senate with bills to reform Medicare, welfare and universities, and dare the red chamber to begin arming the government with the constitutional triggers it needs to prematurely end the terms of a throng of new senators, members, and perhaps the Abbott government itself.
Suggestions the government should, out of political expediency, drop its proposals for a $7 co-payment for GP visits, less generous family handouts and pensions, and higher university fees would be economically and politically disastrous. It would condemn Australian workers to crushing, relentless increases in income tax and signal the inability of the political class to govern even broadly in the country’s interest.
A joint sitting of both houses of parliament according to section 57 of the constitution -- where the numerical weight of the lower house almost ensures the government could pass its blocked bills even if its 35-seat majority collapsed -- is now the Coalition’s best option to fulfil its election pledge to fix the budget and also maximise its chance of winning the next election.
A Coalition reeling from accusations of mendacity and heartlessness won’t be helped by new charges of cowardice and self-interest. A double-dissolution election would at least earn the government the public’s respect and give voters, which tuned out of politics more than a year ago, a chance to focus on why change is necessary.
The government has a persuasive case (assuming it dumps its ridiculous paid parental leave scheme), especially when pitted against an opposition whose economic credentials have been indelibly tarnished.
As outgoing Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson warned: Australians risk falling living standards, lower wages and mounting tax burdens unless government spending is reined in. “It’s not feasible to materially reduce spending growth without looking at the largest spending areas … health, welfare, and higher education," pointedly referring to the three areas the Senate refuses to broach change.
More than six years on from the global financial crisis, the federal budget is in annual deficit nearing $40 billion, around 10 per cent of expenditures. Average workers will soon be paying a marginal income tax rate of 39 per cent, up from 31.5 per cent when the GST was introduced little more than 10 years ago. Not only has not one of the government’s most important, new savings measures been passed by the Senate, the precipitous halving of the iron ore price since the beginning of the year has undermined the rosy forecasts in the May budget. The surplus projected for 2018 has become, if it ever wasn’t, a joke.
Such visceral opposition to what are objectively modest budget measures has been a sad testament to how spoiled and divorced from reality so many Australians, whose “poor” are among the most prosperous people on Earth, have become. The $5bn a year cost of 'free' GP visits is growing around three times as fast as the population or inflation. Indeed, they are only the tip of a health spending iceberg that will absorb another 2 per cent of GDP (about half the annual GST take) by 2024 and shipwreck the economy without a change of course.
The view that the Coalition’s and Tony Abbott’s entrenched unpopularity would conspire to ensure the government’s defeat in a snap election is naive. An election would prompt, as always, an immediate narrowing in the polls. And by opposing all the Coalition’s main budget savings and most of its own left over from Kevin Rudd, Labor would suddenly be in an invidious position. Having promised to reinstate everything from ABC funding cuts to the despicable school kids bonus, its alternative would necessarily entail a massive increase in explicit taxation.
The history of double dissolutions shouldn’t deter the Coalition. Of the five initiated by governments since federation, only prime ministers Joseph Cook and Malcolm Fraser, in 1914 and 1983 respectively, lost the subsequent election. Fraser had been in power for eight years while Cook had a majority of one in the lower house.
Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke successfully dissolved both houses of parliament in 1951, 1974 and 1987, respectively. All were re-elected despite swings against them.
Indeed, threatening a double dissolution might be enough to prevent one. Faced with the likely prospect of losing their six-year, $1.5 million sinecures thanks to the Senate’s byzantine electoral system, Dio Wang, Glen Lazarus and Ricky Muir among others might not be so intransigent.
An early election would offer voters a choice between fantasy and reality, between a flawed government determined to make necessary decisions and a carping, puerile opposition, a shadow of its former incarnations seemingly hell bent on engineering ever higher income tax on the people it is meant to support.
This article was first published in The Australian. Reproduced with permission.