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It’s been a tumultuous finish to the parliamentary year for the federal government. A backbench rebellion by several Coalition senators, an inability to pass key legislation, and continued hostilities with some state Premiers have all dominated the past month.

Vaccine mandates

Vaccine mandates have proven to be one of the most contentious issues to occur throughout COVID. The issue is now causing an array of political problems for the PM. Last week five Coalition senators supported a One Nation bill to override state governments who have implemented vaccine mandates. In addition, both Queensland LNP Senator Gerard Rennick and South Australian Liberal Senator Alex Antic have threatened to withhold support for any government legislation unless the Federal Government implements laws that oppose mandatory vaccination.

The mandatory vaccination debate also resulted in one of the more impassioned speeches to take place in parliament in living memory. Outspoken Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie eviscerated One Nation and other Senators supporting their bill. She lambasted the notion that unvaccinated people would be discriminated against. Video footage of Senator Lambie’s speech went viral, including a remix on the popular social media platform TikTok.

Parliament House workplace culture

This week also saw Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins release her report into the culture of Parliament House. Her findings were pretty damning, revealing more than half those surveyed experienced bullying, sexual harassment or sexual assault while working in the building. Ms Jenkins report makes 28 recommendations including the establishment of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission and an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture.

The catalyst for the report were the shocking allegations aired at the beginning of the year from former staffer Brittany Higgins. Explosive allegations that she was raped inside parliament house by a then colleague has brought into sharp focus the behaviour and culture that exists within the four walls of the nation’s peak democratic building. All eyes will now turn to both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to outline respectively the recommendations they will undertake to enact.

Election pathway

On the cusp of an election, it is never great for a government to be having such divisions being displayed in public. They also provide a distraction to the day-to-day business of governing right when Australia is a crucial point in its reopening phase. The good news for the PM is that with no sitting weeks over the next two months there’s ample opportunity to reset over the summer and regain the agenda.

The Government has also outlined a sitting itinerary for 2021, with the Budget scheduled for March 29. This has led many to assume that we’re headed for a May election. This assumption may prove to be premature.

It’s true that if a Budget is handed down in March it’s logical to think a poll will be called for May. Key word in the previous sentence being ‘if’. There is absolutely nothing stopping the PM from calling an election prior to that time.

Indeed, rather than setting in stone a course of events leading to election day, it could easily be argued that this is more about the PM keeping his options open. He’ll open the New Year not being badgered with questions about if and when a Budget will be held before the election. He can point to a date that has been scheduled for the Treasurer to unveil the economic statement. Likewise, if he wants to opt for an earlier trip to the ballot box he can do so and simply say the next Budget can occur in the traditional May timeslot by whoever forms government.

As we head into the final straight for 2021 things are evenly poised leading into an election year. Labor is ahead in the polls, but will be wary of how things unfolded in the 2019 poll. In 2022, Anthony Albanese will look to build a narrative that the Government is tired and clapped out and that change is needed. While the Government will be looking to stabilise over the summer and present themselves as being the logical option for voters to continue guiding the country out of COVID. The next election really could go either way.

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