Guessing what’s in Malcolm Turnbull’s head. That’s what anyone with a passing interest in Australian politics will be doing for the next three months or so. In fact, it’s recently overtaken Pin The Appropriation On The Responsible Subcommittee as Canberra’s favourite parlour game.
No doubt the PM’s head contains many things – public transport maps of our major cities, including photogenic selfie locations, and more Thucydides than anybody outside of a university classics department could possibly need. I suspect there are more tasty stories about Kerry Packer in there somewhere, too.
But if you searched long and hard enough, peeling back the layers of legal arcana and shimmying around the complex corporate structures contained therein, you would find an election date.
Speculation about this date has reached fever pitch in certain nerdy circles. It’s dominating Insiders and Q&A, and it would probably be dominating the Bolt Report if it hadn’t been consigned to the same place Channel Ten stashed Yasmin’s Getting Married.
The commentariat is writing of little else, and I’m constantly hearing my fellow politiconerds say “If I were Malcolm Turnbull, I’d…”, and coming up with their theory about his best tactical move.
(Personally, if I were Malcolm Turnbull, I’d immediately retire and go back to finessing my tech stocks instead of trying to mould our ramshackle polity into something workable, but that’s just me.)
Because the House of Representatives doesn’t have fixed terms, we get to play this game at least once every three years. Julia Gillard tried to avoid it by naming her date early – one in a long series of judgements that didn’t solve her polling problems. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were also denied the chance to pick a date by their nervous colleagues.
In fact – and this astonished me when I realised it – no Prime Minister has been re-elected in their own right since John Howard beat Mark Latham in 2004. So Malcolm Turnbull is trying to do something that’s as rare in Australian politics as a civil, constructive Question Time.
Numerous commentators have started to ask questions about what the PM’s strategy is, and indeed whether there even is one. And given the lack of sweeping announcements in the past few months, we can only speculate that he’s either getting all his ducks in a row as part of a carefully planned strategy reminiscent of the brilliant Athenian general Alcibiades (sorry if you thought we were getting through this without more Thucydides), or forlornly wondering why all his ducks keep flapping off.
But whether or not there is a strategy unspooling slowly before our eyes, or the PM genuinely can’t decide what he wants to do, the result is the same: endless speculation.
At every opportunity, the political commentariat speculates about various dates, indulging in the sort of rule-in, rule-out games that politicians keep promising not to play with us. They’ll painstakingly explain that because of the difference between the laws governing Senate and House elections, the PM’s options are relatively few.
The best man at explaining this, of course, is ABC election analyst Antony Green, and he’s gone into several hundred words on the subject. The most realistic option, though, is a normal election (House and half-Senate) between Saturday 6 August and the end of the year.
However – however – there’s another possibility, and it’s one that gets commentators, prognosticators, analysts, psephologists and approximately zero normal people hugely excited.
We could have…
Wait for it…
A double dissolution!
Yes, folks! An election that’s exactly like a normal one for us voters, except that we would be electing the whole of the Senate instead of half of it.
And this possibility has let electoral geeks indulge in a feast of triggers and mandates and joint sitting talk. Let me explain just a little bit.
A double dissolution was, until recently, a completely suicidal move unless you were likely to win a whopping majority. That’s because it’s a lot easier for microparties to pick up seats in a double dissolution than in a regular election.
You know how last time, several people from the Motoring Enthusiasts and Liberal Democrats got up, along with several Palmer United senators until they weren’t United any more? Even more of that kind of thing would happen than usual.
Or, at least, it would had the government not managed to obtain agreement for changes to the Senate ballot which should serve to freeze out most microparties. More on that in a sec.
A double dissolution would mean an earlier election, probably 2 July, after a long campaign. In other words, Christmas in July for election nerds.
And this is where the game gets really fun, in the unlikely event that you’re the kind of person who finds this stuff fun. Because double dissolution speculation is, for the terminally geeky among us, even more exciting than regular prognosticating.
Let me try for a bit. The big question is, will the PM be so bold? Ah, but being so bold would mean having to rush through the Budget and a supply bill. And subjecting us to a near two-month campaign which would probably be about the details of that budget, which may contain belt-tightening measures. Very bold indeed.
But if he’s passed this new voting legislation, which the cross benches strenuously oppose because it means an end to getting elected with a handful of primary votes, wouldn’t he be crazy not to go for it? Since the crossbenchers will be impossible to work with otherwise?
Yes, but what if he cut a deal whereby he wouldn’t go to a double dissolution, meaning the crossbenchers would all be guaranteed three more years of their sweet Canberra gig, in return for them playing more nicely in the next term of the Parliament? And so it goes.
This is fun, right? Well, I think it is. It’s what I imagine a dinner party at Barrie Cassidy’s place would be like if he’d ever invited me to one, or, indeed, even knew who I was.
Truth be told, I suspect the PM hasn’t yet made up his mind what to do. After all, Alcibiades was nothing if not flexible.
So, in the meantime, we play the guessing game. A game which can only be interrupted by bombshells emanating from or about Tony Abbott, it seems. But even then, it resumes immediately.
And just think – we could be playing until December!
Some people actually enjoy this stuff – I’m one of them. But then again, some people enjoy running through mudpits filled with live electrical cables – an experience that I imagine is not unlike running for political office.
In any event, it’s Game On in Canberra. And if you don’t enjoy intense talk about dates (something which most political geeks only get to do before an election), my advice to the vast majority of Australians is not to talk to, listen to, or read any of our nation’s small cabal of election nerds until it’s over.