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Last hurdle to December poll will be gone in two weeks - will Morrison jump?

Politics

When Parliament resumes in Canberra in a fortnight it will have one urgent piece of legislation supported by both major parties. Once passed, there’s no further barrier to an early election, as Dennis Atkins explains.

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An obscure piece of electoral law is the last hurdle the Morrison Government needs to clear if the prime minister wishes to realise his increasingly urgent wish to have an election before Christmas.

Some electoral law amendments – still being drafted by Special Minister of State Ben Morton – have been asked for by the Australian Electoral Commission to ensure the smooth operation of an election during a pandemic.

Morton plans to present the bill, which cover various technical requirements of how polling places work and counts proceed, to the coalition party room on October 19 and the legislation will go through the parliament that week.

Both major parties agree to its broad intent and when bill is passed it will be sent off for assent by the Governor General.

That will put the final duck in place for Morrison to call an election from the next weekend, with an announcement on either Saturday, October 23 or the following day.

This would see an election held almost certainly on Saturday, November 27. Of course, in these very uncertain Covid times anything can upset the apple cart but as the balance of risk tilts further and further towards a poll in 2021, this is the most likely date.

The resignations late last week, over the weekend and on Monday of the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, her deputy John Barilaro and senior minister Andrew Constance have crowded the election calendar for later this year with December 4 (the date of some local government polls in the state) as the day most likely to host the contests. This would make any federal poll this year before December 4 (one on December 11 is surely out of the question) which again points to November 27.

If Morrison misses this narrow window he’ll have to wait until late January to call an election for the end of February or very early March. By then the balance of risk could be much more unattractive to our risk-taking PM.

If you want to look at how the prime minister’s campaign-ready brain is viewing the election, the best place to start is Morrison’s pre-national cabinet news conference from late last week.

This was the “let’s open up and get people around the Christmas family table” plan news conference. The key new piece to the election plan was that by sometime in November – when New South Wales and Victoria have 80 percent vaccination rates – international travel into and out of those states will be allowed.

“(By then) people from New South Wales or Victoria (will be) able to travel or come back in larger numbers, and they will come back through,” said Morrison. “I suspect we’ll see Victoria follow suit at some point. I know the Premier is keen on achieving that, when that’s safe to do so, as well.”

Holding out this tantalising taste of hope – as he sees it – Morrison then dropped the political shoulder into the Palaszczuk Government here in Queensland. “So, we’re not, the question is, well, how can you go to Bali or Fiji, but you can’t go to Queensland?

“I’m sure there’s plenty of tourism operators in Queensland who will be asking that question. But, when vaccination rates hit 80 per cent in Queensland, well then there’ll be (an) opportunity for Queensland to join an open country when they hit that mark.”

Get that? Queensland can “join an open country” with the clear implication the notion this state is “closed off” rests with the Labor administration in William Street.

The federal government is ratcheting up its attacks on Labor in Queensland because it is vital to its political survival.

With polls looking grim wherever the Coalition turns – from a potential complete collapse in support in Victoria through almost certain losses in Western Australia, no change likely in South Australia and Tasmania and alarming uncertainty in and around Sydney – the need to hold the line in Queensland is now essential to any hope of re-election.

The Coalition’s poll slump now looks more like a correction – maybe a suppressed vote that’s atrophied. The numbers slipped from a primary vote of around 40 percent and is now stuck at or near 37 percent. The two party preferred gap has been between eight and six points, towards Labor, since early July.

Until that time, Queensland looked like registering no change at the coming election and that was on course to continue despite some euphoric dreaming by the LNP they might pick up Blair and Lilley early this year.

Now Labor is increasingly confident they can pick up two out of three LNP seats up for grabs – Longman on the northern outskirts of Brisbane, Flynn on the Central Coast around Gladstone and Leichhardt, which runs through Cape York from Cairns to the north.

Morrison also took it upon himself to give the states a swipe over hospital funding, answering a question that wasn’t asked. “I’ve noted the comments that have been made on the hospitals. Our Government has increased funding for hospitals across the states by over 70 per cent since we came to Government. The states have increased their spending by about just over 40 per cent. So, if they would like to match us, then I’m sure they’re going to be able to close the gap,” said Morrison.

The prime minister said the states had “a lot of opportunity” to prepare for increased demand on their hospitals and “the pandemic should (not) be used as an excuse for shakedown politics”.

Morrison didn’t acknowledge the demand for an increase in hospital funding – agreed to last year – was made by all state health ministers (Labor and Coalition) and was requested in response to a peremptory relinquishment of the previous boost in funding.

Most interesting was the context in which Morrison’s response was framed: it was reported as a reaction to a demand from Queensland alone, making the Palaszczuk Government looking greedy and worse, guilty of shakedown politics. It’s going to be that kind of election where no prisoners will be taken and the wounded left by the roadside.

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