Why ministers are deserting the federal government on the eve of a poll

Picture: AAP Image/David Mariuz
Picture: AAP Image/David Mariuz

If anyone had any doubt that many in the government believe they will lose the forthcoming election, that doubt is now vanquished with the shock announcement that high-profile minister Christopher Pyne will not recontest his seat of Sturt at the May election.

Pyne joins four other ministers who have decided to retire at this election, including Kelly O’Dwyer and Michael Keenan and the former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop, who lost a leadership ballot to Scott Morrison, is also leaving politics.

There are just three days of parliament left before the federal election is called, most likely for May 18.

On April 2, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will deliver the last budget of the Turnbull/Morrison government. Allowing for convention, Bill Shorten will give the budget reply speech on April 4. The Prime Minister will then call the election.

While it is not unusual for long-serving members and Senators to retire, it is most unusual for a long list of senior ministers to announce their retirements on the eve of a poll. Some, like O’Dwyer and Keenan, are retiring for legitimate family reasons, while most of the others are leaving because, it would seem, they don’t want to serve in opposition. In effect, they believe the Coalition parties will lose. Pyne’s seat, with a margin of just over five per cent, must be considered a possible Labor win, given the Liberals lose Pyne’s substantial personal recognition vote.

While Morrison is putting on a brave face, the retirements provide a negative signal to the electorate and further ammunition for Labor in the run up to May.

Few would have missed the timing, and irony, when, after Bishop’s valedictory speech, she left the Chamber without waiting to hear her leader’s response.  

All eyes now turn to NSW, where the somewhat embattled Berejiklian-led Coalition government faces the electorate on March 23. Polls suggest the NSW election will be very close, and the result could come down to a few crucial rural and regional seats presently held by the Nationals.

A poor result in NSW will place further pressure on Morrison, who has been keen to remain largely absent from campaigning for fear the internal strife in the federal party influences the NSW outcome.

April's federal budget will be the most political since Peter Costello’s last budget in 2007, for rarely has one been so close to an election. Expect it to be a campaign speech, for the government, behind in the polls, must engineer an economic result which can justify its election war chest of promises.

Ian Tulloch is an honorary associate (politics) at La Trobe University, Bendigo