Australia's politics continue to be as turbulent as New Zealand's are calm. Its present government, like its previous one, has replaced its Prime Minister midway through its first term and Malcolm Turnbull, like Julia Gillard, has been punished in opinion polls. On Monday, Mr Turnbull went for broke, engineering a Senate vote that allows him to force a rare "double dissolution" - a general election for both the lower house and the full upper house of the federal Parliament. Only half the Senate seats are usually at stake.
A double-dissolution election, if he wins it, would certainly give the Turnbull Government the authority it needs. He ought to have gone to the country six months ago, after the Liberal Party deposed Tony Abbott. But the fact that on Monday a small number of independent Senators gave the Prime Minister the excuse he needed for a double dissolution - voting down a Government bill for a second time - suggests they are not afraid of an election sooner rather than later this year.
The Labor Party has been level-pegging with the Coalition in opinion polls of late, a remarkable feat considering the disarray it had suffered by the time it lost power in 2013 and the inquiry into previous trade union dealings involving its new leader, Bill Shorten. Labor's bounce back from those difficulties had much to do with Mr Abbott's unpopularity in office but now reflects disappointment in Mr Turnbull. He has followed a cautious path since taking over from Mr Abbott, backtracking on some issues and marking time on others.
There are even slight echoes of the Rudd-Gillard disputes with Mr Abbott announcing in January that he would not be retiring after all at the election this year and, more recently, Mr Abbott's suggestion that his achievements in government will be the key to the Coalition's re-election prospects. He was referring to stopping illegal immigration by boat, finalising free-trade agreements and his response to security threats and terrorism. Mr Turnbull could only respond lamely that he would campaign on "continuity and change".
The only change Australians have seen is of style rather than substance, and they are probably glad of that. Mr Abbott's rhetoric on boat people, terrorism and security was often a bit too rich for Australasian ears. Mr Turnbull offered a more urbane image and a moderate voice. He had openly admired the political style of New Zealand's Prime Minister and New Zealanders might now wonder whether Mr Turnbull's caution and avoidance of controversy so far is modelled on John Key. If so, it is not working in Australia.
The election date is expected to be set after the Budget, which has been brought forward to May 3. The schedule suggests an election on July 2, one day after rules take effect that will disadvantage the independent Senators that can block Government bills. The bill that has triggered the double dissolution is an industrial relations measure for the building industry, which is an ideal issue for a conservative government's campaign. But Australians may be hoping for bigger things from Mr Turnbull. He needs to win well.
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