Australian PM threatens early elections over union row

Australian PM threatens early elections over union row
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
PHOTO: Reuters

Sydney - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threatened Monday to hold early general elections, which his conservative government would likely win, if parliament fails to end a deadlock over legislation on unions.

Turnbull grabbed power in a ruling Liberal party coup last September, pledging better management of the economy, but has failed to push ahead with fiscal and industrial relations reforms.

In a political ploy, Turnbull said the election would be held on July 2 unless the upper house, where crossbenchers hold the balance of power, agrees to pass deadlocked legislation on unions.

The Senate has already rejected the bills - one of them twice - and several key crossbenchers said Friday they would still not budge, potentially triggering a "double dissolution" of both houses of parliament.

"We are calling the double dissolution election because we need to secure support... from the Australian people for important economic reforms," Turnbull said, implying he did not expect the bills to get through.

The union laws aim to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a watchdog scrapped by the former Labor government and loathed by union leaders.

"These reforms will ensure that unions are more accountable, more transparent, managed in the same manner, transparent manner that public companies should be managed," Turnbull said.

A government inquiry into trade union corruption in December found "widespread" and "deep-seated" misconduct, but the opposition accused the coalition of exploiting the royal commission to conduct an anti-union witch-hunt.

"If the Senate fails to pass these laws, I will advise the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses of Parliament and issue writs for an election," Turnbull said.

Parliament will be recalled from April 18 to pass the legislation. But if that fails, both houses would need to be dissolved by May 11 to allow for a July vote.

"The time for playing games is over," Turnbull vowed.

While the prime minister is expected to win an election his support has slipped in recent weeks as promised changes have failed to materialise.

The latest Newspoll published Monday in The Australian still had Turnbull garnering 39 per cent satisfaction as leader, 11 percentage points ahead of Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten.

"We are ready for this election," Shorten said.

Turnbull had broken the promises he made on seizing power from his predecessor Tony Abbott last year, the opposition leader added.

"He has failed to deliver (economic leadership). He promised fairness and he has failed to deliver and he promised unity and he has monumentally failed to deliver." Turnbull had predicted the vote would be held between August and October, ahead of a January 2017 deadline, as he tried to consolidate power after Australia swapped prime minister five times in as many years.

The government last week won a battle in the Senate to reform electoral law, after harnessing support from the Greens party.

The changes to Australia's transferable ballot system, where voters rank parties or candidates according to preference, are aimed at reducing the number of micro-parties who have successfully blocked government policies over the last three years.

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