Via the ABC’s Laura Tingle today:
Federal Cabinet was supposed to meet on Sunday to agree on a response to the banking royal commission before its release today. Instead, the Government’s considered response to a three-volume report was dealt with in a Cabinet phone hook-up this afternoon while journalists and industry representatives were locked away studying the report.
So there is an open question over what process the Government’s response has been through.
Government can often be a hectic and messy process.
For example, meetings of both the Expenditure Review Committee and National Security of Cabinet, which were supposed to occur today, were cancelled at 7:00pm on Sunday, a move forced by the Prime Minister’s decision to go to visit the scene of bushfire devastation in Tasmania and floods in Townsville.
But beyond the normal noise of managing the affairs of the nation, there are signs of a government panicking over possibly losing a vote in the House of Representatives in the looming parliamentary sitting and bringing on an election.
The underlying strategy of the Government remains to hold on as long as possible before going to the polls — effectively meaning calling an election after it brings down the budget on April 2 for a May 11 or May 18 poll.
This gives the Coalition the maximum time to launch a full-scale assault on Labor’s negative gearing and dividend imputation policies, hand down a budget which offers cash to voters and, frankly, hope something turns up.
But as is always the case in politics, there are some possible problems.
The first one is that a slowing world economy must throw a question mark over economic forecasts — and therefore the budget numbers.
If the Government brings down an April budget, it will have to include the December quarter national accounts in its forecasting assumptions.
These updated forecasts may not be so boisterous as the ones which underpinned the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) just two months ago.
The MYEFO forecasts painted a picture of a reasonably healthy economy finally delivering a bounce-back in tax collections, which have largely eluded governments since the global financial crisis.
More pessimistic forecasts may not only constrain the Government’s capacity to spend big to try to hold on to voters, but cast a cloud over its forecasts of return to surplus — a key plank of its claims to superior economic management to Labor.
There are signs there are already tensions over the forecasts within the bowels of the government machine.
Tactic to spook the crossbench?
But the Government has more immediate problems too.
Late last week, crossbenchers in the House of Representatives started to be contacted by journalists who had been briefed by the Government that the latest House of Representatives practice — effectively the rule book which governs how parliament runs — suggested that if the Government were to lose any motion on any substantive policy issue, it would represent a vote of no confidence and thus could prompt an early snap election.
The widespread response to this idea was that it was a tactic being used by the Government to try to spook the crossbench — particularly Cathy McGowan — that any move by them to force through a bill on medical evacuations from Nauru and Manus might bring on an immediate election.
Ms McGowan has said she wants the Parliament to go full term.
The public service is convinced the Prime Minister may call an election during the parliamentary sittings to avoid a vote the Government would lose.
Bureaucrats have started fast-tracking the writing of the briefs written for incoming governments that are part of normal pre-election processes.
The Government, by comparison, is clearly suggesting its concern is that a poll would be brought on by Labor and the crossbench, a move Labor sources suggest would not happen.
The Australian reported today on a letter “expected to be sent to Bill Shorten today, and seen by The Australian”, in which Prime Minister Scott Morrison once again urged Mr Shorten “to reverse your support for Senate amendments to the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018 to be considered when Parliament resumes”.
“The changes you are now supporting in the amendments from the Senate changes will effectively end offshore processing as a useful component of our border protection regime,” the Prime Minister wrote to Mr Shorten.
“The advice from our security agencies is very clear…
“The reason that the amendments passed by the Senate will end offshore processing is simply that they take the final decision of who comes to Australia out of the hands of the elected government of this country. The amendments permit individuals on Nauru and Manus to gain entry to Australia on the say-so of any two doctors in this country.”
Focus on the House of Reps
Adding to the sense of a government keeping all its options open, Senate crossbenchers report that, unusually, they have not been contacted by the Government in advance of the parliamentary sitting next week to test their positions on issues before the Senate.
All the focus is on salvaging its position in the House of Representatives.
Some MPs are concerned Mr Morrison might allow the issue to go to a vote and then call a snap election that he runs as one on stopping the boats — claiming the crossbench and Labor are effectively trying to dismantle Australia’s border protection regime.
This is the context in which to see the moves in the past 48 hours to make much of the final children being removed from offshore detention, and a capitulation of sorts on processes for medical evacuations of offshore detainees.
The Government is doing all in its power to avoid losing the vote. But, by leaking the letter, it has also put Labor and the crossbench on notice about how hard it would run the idea that they would be responsible for dismantling Australia’s border security.
Asked on 7.30 whether a snap election was an option, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said “no”.
“The Prime Minister’s made very clear that I’ll be handing down a budget on April 2 and the election will be held after that.”
Bring it. Sooner the better for all concerned.