Predicting the future of Australian politics

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will win the election. Photo: Alex Ellinghauseh Bill Shorten will put on a brave face and work tirelessly to get some electoral traction.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott will stay in parliament to make life difficult for Malcolm Turnbull.

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss will announce his retirement. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Crossbench senator Nick Xenophon will get a new friend in the upper house.

Barnaby Joyce … will take over as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister. Photo: Stefan Postles

Clive Palmer … will bow out of politics. Photo: Daniel Munoz

We’ve seen a quite bit of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten this month – the former in the Oval Office, the latter in the lettuce aisle – but this week marks the real beginning of election year 2016.

Once the barbecues and bonhomie of Australia Day are out of the way, the hostilities will truly commence. So what better way to kick it all off than with a series of predictions and prognostications for the year ahead?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” American pro-baseballer Yogi Berra once remarked.

Sage words. And for a decade now, Australian politics has been nothing if not unpredictable; people with much finer minds than mine have seen their forecasts foiled, their divinations denied.

It’s almost certain then this column will stand a year from now as a monument to this correspondent’s fortune-telling failings.

But let’s give it a shot. Come a little closer, dear reader, and gaze into my crystal ball. Let’s see what we can see …

Through the mists, one thing is clear: Malcolm Turnbull will win the election.

The poll will take place in September and it will be closer than some people expect but ultimately a comfortable victory for Turnbull. (It’s tempting to predict it will be the first of two or three election victories for the Member for Net Worth I mean Wentworth – but let’s not get too ambitious with this soothsaying stuff.)

It won’t all be smooth sailing to the ballot box though.

Tony Abbott’s acolytes will spend much of the year carping and criticising from the sidelines, a de-facto opposition and constant thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. They’ll make sure he doesn’t waver on national security and try to keep his progressive agenda – gay marriage, climate change and republicanism – from surfacing.

Nevertheless, gay marriage will emerge once again as a divisive issue for the Coalition in 2016. At some stage Turnbull will detail his plan for a plebiscite; the conservatives will do all they can to derail it.

The drama surrounding Coalition preselections in NSW will also intensify and play out in the public eye, adding to the Prime Minister’s headaches. He’ll need to be fleet of foot to make sure it doesn’t escalate into civil war.

If all that’s not bad enough, Turnbull will also need to grapple with an ailing economy. As the International Monetary Fund warned last week, global growth is on the precipice, requiring some deft leadership.

Which will, of course, make the government’s already difficult budget task even harder. Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison have the unenviable task of crafting an election-year budget with no money.

They will be very careful not to repeat the mistakes of Abbott’s 2014 budget. While they may spend some political capital on a handful of unpopular measures they’ll ultimately opt for a deeper deficit rather than savage cuts.

Let’s turn now to Bill Shorten, who’s going to have a very rough year.

He’ll put on a brave face and work tirelessly to get some electoral traction with his campaigns on the GST and penalty rates but it will barely move the needle on his dismal approval ratings.

As the year stretches on, some in the Labor caucus will toy with the idea of removing him but ultimately decide against it.

No one really believes the three alternative leaders – Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen – would be able to do any better against Turnbull, so why burn through them?

When the election’s over, Shorten will give someone else a shot at the leadership; but he’ll be sorely tempted to stay in parliament in case his number comes up again in the years ahead.

What of the other players?

Warren Truss will announce his retirement in the coming months and a lot of Australians will say, “Who?”

Barnaby Joyce will take over as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister and that will be the end of civilisation as we know it. Not really – he’ll actually do a decent job.

Crossbencher Nick Xenophon will get a new friend in the upper house, small business advocate Stirling Griff, who’s the lead Senate candidate for the Nick Xenophon team in South Australia. But Xenophon’s electoral success will end there: his personal popularity won’t translate into lower house seats.

Clive Palmer will bid adieu to politics. He’ll decide not to run again in Fairfax, knowing full well he’d lose. He’ll turn his attention to his ailing business empire, leaving PUP senator Dio Wang hanging in the breeze.

Tony Abbott’s mind is perhaps hardest to know but let’s go out on a limb and call it: he’ll stay in Parliament to make life difficult for Turnbull and nurture the ridiculous notion that he’ll one day return to the top job.

And there you have it folks: 2016 before it happens. Meet me here in a year and we’ll see how I did.

Adam Gartrell is national political correspondent.

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