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.

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