SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull set the stage for early elections on July 2, despite signs his personal popularity is sagging, by recalling parliament in the boldest gamble of his short leadership.
Parliament will be recalled from its seven-week recess to sit on April 18, Turnbull said on Monday, to vote on labor reform bills that are likely to be blocked in the upper house Senate by smaller parties such as the influential Greens and the main center-left opposition Labor Party.
The release of the 2015/16 national budget would also be moved forward by one week to May 3, he said.
“The time for playing games is over,” Turnbull said in a nationally televised news conference.
“This is an opportunity for the Senate to do its job of legislating rather than filibustering. The go-slows and obstruction by Labor and the Greens on this key legislation must end,” he said.
The wheels were set in motion for an early poll when the Senate passed voting reforms on Friday after a marathon session.
An election is due by January 2017 but had been widely expected by political pundits to be called for the second half of 2016. A piece of legislation must be defeated twice by the Senate to give Turnbull the trigger for an early election.
Turnbull has consistently led opinion polls since he came to power in a party-room coup last year. His ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition has led Labor in recent polls but there are signs his honeymoon period may be ending.
A Newspoll released on Monday showed Turnbull’s popularity falling into negative territory for the first time. The poll of 2,049 voters, taken from Thursday to Sunday, showed satisfaction with his performance fell to 39 percent, while dissatisfaction rose to 43 percent.
“FULL PANIC MODE”
Labor Party leader Bill Shorten welcomed the announcement, calling it a sign of a government in “full panic mode”.
“Mr. Turnbull has a plan for his re-election, he just doesn’t have a plan for Australia,” Shorten told reporters.
Australia has become notorious in recent years for its revolving door of political leadership. If Turnbull was to lose a July 2 election, Australia would have its 6th prime minister since 2010.
The piece of legislation that Turnbull is using for an early poll involves the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a watchdog that was empowered to pursue allegations of misconduct in the building industries before it was disbanded under a Labor administration. The bill has already been voted down once in the Senate.
Independent and minor party senators elected at the last national poll in 2013 have stalled other key aspects of the government’s agenda, including changes that would make higher education and health care more expensive and limit access to welfare.
The voting reforms passed by the Senate on Friday would make it harder for smaller parties to enter parliament through vote sharing deals. Turnbull argued that by eliminating these parties from parliament, he would be able to pass key economic reforms.
On Monday, Family First Party Senator Bob Day launched a challenge to those reforms in Australia’s High Court, arguing they would disenfranchise voters. Experts in constitutional law have said they expect the challenge to be rejected.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Paul Tait