2016 Federal Election – Never a more exciting time to vote

It all comes down to credibility and trust

Less than three years ago, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the nation in his victory speech that, “it is the people of Australia who determine the Government and the Prime Ministership of this country, and you will punish anyone who takes you for granted.”

The time has come for the nation to put those words to the test. Yet again, voters are going to the polls after a term in which an elected Prime Minister was removed from the top job by their own party. And yet again, they will be deciding on a Government that like the last, has been criticised for becoming “out of touch” with the people.

It’s little wonder that trust and credibility have become key issues throughout this election campaign. After two terms of endless political turbulence on both sides, this election has become a real contest on which party has the greatest credibility and which leader can be trusted.

The polls have indicated this is going to be a very close race – which is remarkable considering the huge public support Malcolm Turnbull had when he replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister last September. At the time, Labor had all but written off its chances of winning against the Coalition as the nation embraced a more progressive Liberal leader with great hope and enthusiasm.

Turnbull’s decision to go to an early election via a double-dissolution mechanism of both houses of the Federal Parliament was a classic example of his calculated approach to risk. Campaigns are inherently dicey, especially when stretched out over eight weeks as this was, making it one of the longest on record.

Both major parties have campaigned hard, with the Coalition pushing its theme of jobs and growth and Labor promising more money for health and education. However, there have been few big ticket promises from either party compared to previous elections.

Voters will be making critical choices tomorrow and their intentions so far have rung serious alarm bells for both the Coalition and Labor. Frustration has been growing amongst people disillusioned with the established political parties and what they stand for. Support for the minor parties has surged with polls during the campaign showing a near 30 percent attraction amongst voters to alternatives such as the Greens and the newly formed Nick Xenophon Team. This shift had contributed to talk of another hung parliament and a fractured Senate, with pundits divided on how likely that will be.

The leaders
Turnbull has repeatedly raised the divided parliament scenario as a powerful warning for people to carefully consider their vote. He has positioned a Coalition majority Government as the most stable option with strong leadership and a positive national economic plan to secure the country’s future, especially in uncertain times. He has cautioned the public against a protest vote, stating it would lead to a “chaotic” Labor-Greens-Independents alliance that would wreak havoc on the economy.

Shorten on the other hand has campaigned hard to position Labor as the party that cares the most for real people. He has accused Turnbull’s economic approach as divisive, alienating and threatening to the social fabric of our society. Evoking class divisions, Shorten has positioned the Liberals as a party that offers tax cuts for the rich and provides nothing for working and middle class Australians. Labor has carefully framed this election as a choice between the haves versus the have nots – tax cuts for multinationals versus better education and health services.

While both sides commenced with their positive plans for the future, it wasn’t long before things turned negative. Labor launched its powerful scare campaign in the latter half of the campaign, claiming the Coalition has a secret plan to privatise Medicare. While the Coalition denied the claims, “Medi-scare”, as it became known, achieved a lift for Labor which prompted Turnbull to categorically rule out any plans to dismantle the public health care system. The tactic may have achieved initial traction for Labor, but over time it flagged and Shorten’s credibility came under attack after repeated accusations he overreached on a non-existent issue and others like it. The Government also played the scare game, raising the issue of illegal boat arrivals. With the backdrop of an intercepted boat and Labor’s announcement to drop temporary protection visas, Turnbull accused Shorten of effectively sending a green light to people smugglers that they could recommence their trade under a Labor Government.

Increasingly, each side accused the other of telling big lies on almost all of the key issues on a daily basis, making it near impossible for voters to sort out fact from fiction.

Campaign issues
The Economy
Labor has attacked the Coalition’s tax centrepiece – a 10-year plan to lower the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent, at a cost of $48 billion. While it supports the cut for business with a turnover of less than $2 million, Labor is opposed to cutting taxes for bigger businesses. Both parties promise to return the budget to surplus in 2020 -21 however Labor says its deficits would be more than $16 billion higher than the Coalition’s before then, to help stimulate the economy. Labor has proposed restricting negative gearing to new homes from 2017, and would halve the Capital Gains Tax discount on new investments to 25 per cent. The Government has vowed not to change either CGT or negative gearing.

The Coalition announced an extra $2.9 billion in health funding after the Abbott Government cut more than $50 billion over 8 years, after it was elected. While not restoring the Abbott cuts, Labor would increase hospital funding by $2 billion over four years. Labor has also promised to end the GP rebate freeze by restoring indexation of the MBS in 2017. The Government has instituted a major review of private health insurance while Labor says it will prevent the private health insurance rebate going towards so-called ‘junk’ policies.

The Coalition has promised a $3 billion Jobs for Families child care package it says will make child care simpler, more affordable and more accessible for almost one million Australian families. Labor would not change the current system but has committed $3 billion extra, offering greater and faster childcare support to families than the Coalition.

Higher Education
Labor says it will save $6 billion over 10 years by capping vocational education loans to $8,000 a year. The Coalition has not matched this but says it will conduct a widespread review of the VET sector.

Australian Building and Construction Commission
The Coalition will re-establish the industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission which was the trigger for the double dissolution and election. Labor is opposed to the ABCC, saying it is a political move only and that there other bodies who already have the necessary coercive powers to deal with building related corruption claims.

Victorian CFA dispute
The dispute between Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteers and the United Firefighters Union has damaged Labor’s reputation in Victoria and played well into Turnbull’s hands. A new enterprise deal between professional firefighters and the Victorian Government has caused major conflict with volunteers who fear there will be too much union control. The Coalition has promised to amend the Fair Work Act to protect volunteers from further union intervention.

Marriage Equality
The issue of same-sex marriage returned as a dominant issue towards the end of the campaign. Turnbull says he is confident laws to allow same-sex marriage would “sail through” Parliament if a majority of Australians voted for it in a plebiscite. However in the last week, a number of senior Ministers skirted around questions on how they would vote if the plebiscite recorded a yes vote. Shorten, who once supported the plebiscite approach, says legalising same-sex marriage is a key Labor priority. Rather than through a plebiscite, it would be the first piece of legislation presented by a new Labor Government.

What it takes to win
There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives so the party that wins 76 seats, or gains the support of cross bench members to reach 76, can form government. The Coalition won 90 seats in 2013 but a number of redistributions since then have changed the pendulum. One Labor seat was abolished in NSW, one Liberal seat created in WA and three Liberal seats in NSW became notional Labor seats, putting the Coalition on a notional 88 seats and Labor on 57.

This means that Labor needs to win 19 seats to govern in their own right. However, Turnbull will lose his majority if he loses 14 seats. Labor needs a national swing of 4% to pick up the seats they need. But what makes federal campaigns so difficult is there is never a uniform swing as each seat is a different contest.

Conventional wisdoms says the Brexit decision should make undecided voters more likely to turn to Turnbull and his promise of stability and sound economic management in these last days of the campaign. However, record levels of early voting, at points in the campaign where Labor are perceived to have been doing better, might counteract this.

The Senate
Turnbull called a double dissolution ostensibly because the Senate repeatedly rejected Bills that would restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission. If it was that important, one might expect it should be a hot-button issue on the campaign trail, but it has hardly been mentioned. The real reason was that the Government did pass legislation to reform how votes for the Senate are counted in elections and Turnbull hoped that this, coupled with his increased popularity would deliver him both a decisive victory to increase his authority and mandate in his party room and a more favourable Senate makeup.

But the smaller quota needed to win a Senate seat in a double-dissolution election means the new Senate formed after 2 July is likely to contain more, not fewer, crossbenchers. So unless the published polls are wildly inaccurate, a re-elected Turnbull government will be dependent on the Senate votes of the Nick Xenophon Team as well as a difficult-to-predict bunch of Senate independents, possibly including Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch and Bob Day. Not exactly smooth sailing for any future legislation.

Credible appraisals of Senate results indicate only WA looks unlikely to elect any micro-parties or independents. It is predicted the Nick Xenophon Team could win three seats in South Australia, Jacqui Lambie’s ticket will win at least one in Tasmania, both Glenn Lazarus and Pauline Hanson could win in QLD, controversial media personality Derryn Hinch will win in Victoria, and David Leyonhjelm is a maybe in NSW.

A Guardian Australia survey of the positions of the minor parties and independents with a reasonable chance of winning seats in either the House of Representatives or the Senate reveals a high likelihood the Coalition will lose significant spending and saving measures it has proposed. And if Shorten forms government, he would also be forced to negotiate to get his changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions through the Senate.

The legislation to implement the Coalition’s promised marriage equality plebiscite, that has garnered so much campaign air time, could end up blocked. Labor has left open the option of not supporting it, as have the Greens, Xenophon, Lambie and Leyonhjelm who has put up his own same-sex marriage private member’s bill. Xenophon said his party had yet to take a formal position, though all his candidates support marriage equality and believe the plebiscite is a waste of money.

Could we face another hung parliament?
The Australian electorate is showing serious signs of volatility and general disaffection with both major parties. Today’s final Fairfax-Ipsos election poll is showing a massive 27 per cent of voters remain intent on supporting Greens and other crossbench parties and independents. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll points to a dead heat that could deliver a shock Labor win, a narrow coalition victory, or a hung Parliament with no side commanding a majority in the House of Representatives.

Also out today is the Galaxy poll in the News Limited papers showing the Coalition ahead 51-49 on a two-party preferred basis after the major parties were deadlocked at 50-50 throughout the campaign. It indicates Shorten has been unable to lift Labor’s support during the campaign with the Coalition’s primary vote back to 43 per cent.

So what does this all mean? While the safer bet is for the Coalition to be returned with its majority reduced, Labor still has an outside chance if some of the unpredictable factors break their way. And yes, there is still a possibility of a hung parliament.