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Politics

Australia's Turnbull targets July election

Malcolm Turnbull   © AAP

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australians are preparing for an election on July 2 after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spelled out plans for the dissolution of both houses of parliament.

     Industrial relations legislation proposed by the government was defeated this week for a second time in Australia's Senate, providing a constitutional "trigger" for a double dissolution that could give Turnbull's conservative Liberal/National Party coalition a majority in both houses. The government currently lacks a majority in the upper house.

     "My intention is after the [May 3] budget ... I will be asking the governor-general to dissolve both houses of parliament for an election which I expect to be held on July 2," Turnbull said in a press conference on April 19.

     Turnbull refused to provide absolute certainty about the date, but few doubt that the election will be held on July 2. The prime minister said that confirming anything beyond "expectations" might be an affront to the governor-general, Peter Cosgrove, who has the constitutional power to dissolve parliament. Cosgrove is the representative in Australia of Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state.

     An election was foreshadowed several weeks ago when Turnbull recalled parliament early from a break so that senators could vote on controversial legislation on a construction industry watchdog. Turnbull said at the time that a Senate failure to pass the legislation would lead to a double dissolution election.

     The prime minister can ask the governor-general to dissolve both houses of parliament -- the House of Representatives and the Senate -- if legislation has been rejected twice. A double dissolution has occurred six times since Australia became independent in 1901, most famously when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by the governor-general in 1975 in circumstances that remain contentious.

     Turnbull says the blocked legislation is crucial to bringing "law and order" to the building industry through the establishment of a new Australian Building and Construction Commission. Opponents view it as an attack on trades union rights. It was voted down on April 18 for a second time.

     "The [commission] will be a trigger for a double dissolution election," Turnbull said the following day. "A double dissolution election is about giving the people their say."

     An early ballot -- an election had been due by early 2017 -- may delay the announcement of a decision on the winner of a competition between Japan, France and Germany for a $39 billion submarine fleet for Australia.

     A decision has reportedly been made, and an announcement appeared imminent before Turnbull's talk of an election this week.

Frontrunner

Japan has been considered a frontrunner for the contract, despite intense competition from both European countries. But German officials have been in Australia recently meeting companies seeking sub-contracts for maintenance and parts supply if the German bid is successful.

     The prime minister's wife Lucy Turnbull, a successful businesswoman, vacated her position as German-Australian Chamber of Industry president earlier in April -- a move seen by some as a sign that the German bid has won.

     Awarding the contract to Japan, however, could strengthen ties between Tokyo and Canberra, which would likely please the U.S. and irk China. With up to 2,000 jobs to be created in Australia, the defense contract could also become an issue for voters as the election draws closer.

     Meanwhile, Turnbull's conservative coalition government has its sights on its May 3 budget, which will be Treasurer Scott Morrison's first. The opposition Labor Party is focusing on a royal commission into the conduct of the nation's banks.

     But it's clear that both sides have been preparing intensely for an election, although neither admits it. Politicians and the public are already bracing themselves for what the opposition is calling "the longest federal election campaign on record."

     It is only seven months since Turnbull wrested the top job from his predecessor, Tony Abbott, who fell victim to a party coup after a series of political gaffes left his approval rating in tatters.

     Turnbull's own popularity was sky-high in the afterglow of his victory over Abbott, but it has since shown signs of coming back to earth. A recent Fairfax Ipsos opinion poll suggested that support for the main parties was evenly divided. However, it also gave Turnbull 54% support as preferred prime minister, compared to 27% for opposition leader Bill Shorten.

     Turnbull, known for his self-assurance, will likely remain buoyant when it comes to his chances of winning his first election, regardless of what the polls say. He is already talking of victory and his plans as prime minister beyond July 2.

     "When we win the election -- and I believe we will -- we will return and the [construction industry] reforms ... will be made law. What that will do is protect jobs and drive economic growth," he said.

     Shorten has other ideas. "This is a government [that] clearly looks much more comfortable being the opposition. In 74 days, there's every chance they will be the opposition again," he said.

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