Australia’s double dissolution election: a preview

John Uhr

Australians head to the polls tomorrow to vote in a rare double dissolution election. Harrison Miller and John Uhr discuss the constitutional issues raised by the election and look ahead to the possible result. They suggest that the most likely outcome is that the incumbent centre-right coalition will be re-elected with a reduced majority, though little can be taken for granted given the country’s political instability in recent years.

A week after the UK’s dramatic EU Referendum, Australians are headed to the polls for an election of their own on tomorrow. While not on the scale of Brexit, the 2016 Australian general election is noteworthy nonetheless, with several significant constitutional issues in play.

Australia’s last national election in September 2013 led to the loss of the Rudd-led Labor government which won office under Julia Gillard’s leadership in 2010. The conservative government now led by Malcolm Turnbull won the last election under the leadership of Tony Abbott, who won office for the conservative Liberal-National coalition with a comfortable majority of 15 seats in the 150 member House of Representatives. But Australian Prime Ministers do not get that much comfort: Labor’s Rudd was replaced by Gillard who later was replaced by Rudd. The serving Liberals won office with Abbott who was replaced less than a year ago, in September 2015, by Turnbull, who had earlier led the party in opposition only to be replaced as opposition leader by Abbott. The last Australian Prime Minister serving a complete term was John Howard, from 2004 to 2007.

The Australian parliamentary system has a relatively short three year term for the 150 member House of Representatives. Normally, national elections allow voters to elect all seats in the lower house and one half of the seats in the Senate or upper house, whose members serve six year terms. Next weekend’s election is quite unusual in that it is a ‘double dissolution’ election for all 150 lower house seats and all 76 Senate seats. The Australian constitution gives governments the power to dissolve both houses if the Senate, which shares legislative power with the lower house, has frustrated government legislation. The Senate is elected under a system of proportional representation which has meant that most governments face an upper house with significant numbers of minor party members. Most of the time, governments learn to live with this lack of power. The last double dissolution was under the Hawke Labor government in 1987. The 2016 double dissolution arose from a bill to establish a commission to regulate union practices in the building industry which was twice rejected by the Senate.

The 2016 election campaign has not really been about this one defeated piece of proposed legislation. The main theme has been balancing the budget. The former Abbott government faced considerable opposition to its two annual budgets, including obstruction from non-government parties in the Senate. Turnbull’s rise to power reflects a desire among conservative representatives for a more persuasive head of government. A surprise was the speed with which the newly-elevated Prime Minister moved to reform the Senate electoral system before introducing his own budget on the eve of the election. The two moves indicate Turnbull’s electoral ambition. His initial move is to minimise minor parties in the Senate by changing the way preferential voting operates. His aim here is to reduce the power of so-called ‘preference whisperers’ to mobilise the ranking of preference votes by supporters of minor parties. His hope is that the reformed electoral system, supported by the Greens but opposed by Labor, will take power back from party managers who have acted as the agents of voters who often know very little about where their preferences might be allocated. The second move is to introduce a budget scheme to bring back a surplus which Australian governments have not enjoyed since the global financial crisis.

This unusual election is an experiment on two fronts. The Turnbull government is hoping that the new but untested electoral scheme for the Senate will ensure that governments no longer face the opposition of minor, often single-interest, parties or independents. The trouble is that double dissolutions tend to make it easier for minor players and independents to secure a quota of votes that is only half of the larger quota required at normal half-Senate elections. Here both the government and the formal opposition are watching with concern as many minor parties are making surprising efforts to persuade voters to use their Senate vote to elect ‘balance of power’ candidates. The expectation is that the Senate elected on 2 July will have just as many minor parties as the one which triggered the election.

The second front is the budget. Both the government and the formal opposition have developed quite sophisticated blue-prints showing how to return public finances back to the surplus of days of old. The two competing models differ on the nature of policy reform but they do converge on the timetable for recovery of that mysterious surplus and the overcoming of existing debts and deficits. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that both government and opposition are neck and neck in the final few days of this very long eight week campaign. The betting suggests that the government could win with a reduced lower house majority, though also that the Senate will remain outside the control of the governing party.

One remaining issue is the mandate of the current Prime Minister. Turnbull led the conservative opposition to Rudd many years ago but was rolled by Abbott. Turnbull’s rolling of Abbott less than a year ago brought him power but not really a public mandate. Turnbull needs a victory, even with a reduced majority, to ease his way into that necessary public mandate. But the price of such success will be high: a hostile Senate plus a restless governing coalition which includes many on the right who see Turnbull as too progressive.

And what of the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who has led the party since the loss of government in 2013? Turnbull opted for the lengthy eight week campaign and could be surprised at how resilient Shorten has been. The Labor campaign has rallied around health and education, leaving Turnbull with the option of warning voters about a potential Labor-Greens government in a hung parliament. The fear is that voters do not want a return to the type of minority government won by Gillard in 2010. Labor in 2016 has gone out of its way to deny any intention of sharing power with the Greens who currently hold many seats in the Senate and one in the lower house. The Greens in turn are competing vigorously against Labor in many city electorates.

Given the political instability of late, little can be taken for granted. Nevertheless, the most likely result is that of a re-elected government, albeit with a reduced majority. Interestingly enough, it has been suggested that Britain’s vote to leave the EU may make this result more likely. Australian voters, weary of the uncertainty unleashed by Brexit, could opt for the security of the status quo and re-elect the current government with a comfortable margin. So whoever ends up in the prime ministerial residence on July 3, many will be hoping they can remain there for a full parliamentary term.

About the authors

Harrison Miller is a PhD student in political science at the Australian National University.

John Uhr is a professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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