JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

How Tony Abbott can play his double dissolution election card

Date

George Williams

There is no political upside to Tony Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning. Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election should cannot be written off.

There is no political upside to Tony Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning. Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election should cannot be written off. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

As sure as night follows day, government defeats in the Senate lead to suggestions of a double dissolution. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has fuelled this by saying such an election may be held in six to 12 months if the Senate does not fall into line.

A double dissolution means an early election at which all members of the House of Representatives and Senate are elected, as opposed to a normal election at which only half the Senate is chosen. It offers the only means of cutting short the six-year terms of the micro-party Senators chosen at the last election.

A prime minister can call a double dissolution under section 57 of the Constitution when there is a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate must fail to pass a bill that has gone through the House of Representatives, and this must occur again after three months have elapsed.

When this happens, the government gains a trigger to call an early election. Such polls are often threatened, but rarely held. Australia has had double dissolution elections only six times, the most recent being more than a quarter of a century ago. They were in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987.

Given this record, the smart money would be on Parliament running its full term. If nothing else, there is no political upside to Abbott calling an early election unless he has strong prospects of winning, and the polls do not suggest this.

A double dissolution may also amplify his problems with the Senate. Electing the whole of the Senate in one go means the quota to win a seat is almost halved, from 14.3 per cent to 7.7 per cent. A lower quota, with the prospect of more micro party senators, is hardly desirable for a Prime Minister wanting a more pliable upper house.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a double dissolution election cannot be written off. It can still offer significant upsides to Abbott if approached in the right way.

First, such an election should not be called until Parliament has reformed the Senate voting process. It is widely recognised that this is broken, as micro parties can game the system to produce a lottery-like effect by which a candidate with an infinitesimal number of first preference votes can win a seat.

Parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters recently reached a consensus on how this should be fixed. It recommends the system be changed so people can indicate their preferences both above and below the line on the Senate voting ticket.

This means voters, and not parties, control the flow of preferences. A double dissolution election held under these rules can advantage those parties and candidates that attract a significant number of votes. Micro parties with little support will not be elected.

Second, a double dissolution can be held close to the time of the next federal election. This allows the government to run almost to full term and lessen the political downsides.

The constitution says a double dissolution cannot take place within six months of the expiry of the House of Representatives. With it due to expire on November 11, 2016, a double dissolution election needs to be called by May 11, 2016. The result may be a mid-2016 double dissolution election, rather than a normal general election a few months later.

Third, a double dissolution may offer the only means for the government to pass some of its more contentious policies. This is because the procedure also provides a special way to enact disputed legislation.

If the deadlocked bills are still not passed after a double dissolution election, a re-elected Prime Minister can call a joint sitting of Parliament at which both houses vote collectively on the bills. As the constitution requires the House of Representatives to be twice the size of the Senate, a government can win such a vote when its lower house majority offsets its deficit in the Senate.

Only one double dissolution has been followed by a joint sitting. That was in 1974 when the Whitlam government used the procedure to enact reforms including Medibank (now Medicare) and one-vote, one-value in the allocation of voters to electoral districts. A double dissolution may be the only viable means for Abbott to bring about changes such as those to higher education and a GP co-payment.

People should be sceptical about Australia heading to an early double dissolution election. However, it is a more likely prospect if it is held near the end of this term of Parliament and in a way that prevents more micro party senators from being elected. It can also offer Abbott an historic opportunity to enact major reforms that may otherwise never be passed by the Senate.

George Williams is the Anthony Mason professor of law at the University of New South Wales.

Twitter: @ProfGWilliams

158 comments so far

  • Please, please call a DD. If Abbott wins on an HONEST campaign then I'll shut up and acknowledge him a mandate.

    Commenter
    Mr Ed
    Location
    Katoomba
    Date and time
    July 15, 2014, 12:52AM
    • The last time we had a DD, it was caused by the Liberal Party blocking supply because Labor had flouted a minor parliamentary convention. The media beat-up created the situation where the public more or less accepted the situation, however it could have ended in civil war. Perhaps that is what Abbott wants ? Murdoch's poisonous lies cannot save him forever.

      Commenter
      adam
      Location
      yarrawonga
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:23AM
    • But the Greens wont, they will still want their country back.

      Commenter
      Kingstondude
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:41AM
    • Mr ED,
      its in Abbott's DNA to lie and deceive. The Australian Public wont be fooled next time.

      Commenter
      Favela Liberal
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:47AM
    • Is it John 13: "…..verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice."
      So, if the Senate denies Abbott on three occasions - will he call a double dissolution? If he does, who will then be crowing?
      Please, if there is a DD - can one side get a clear majority so we can move forward?
      Bill Shorten or Tony Abbott - both need a good run at addressing our considerable economic challenges.
      If they don't, the Schadenfreude we feel when our political opponents are floundering will come back to bite us - and we will definitely not be laughing in the future.
      The longer our economic issues are left to drift, the greater the pain for us in the future - when the inevitable adjustments have to be made.

      Commenter
      Howe Synnott
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:48AM
    • He won an honest campaign last time and the whinges on the left have not shut up. He didn't do dirty deals with the greens or two turncoat indies to form government, he did it in his own right and everything he has tried to implement has been blocked by labor, the green and this rude fool palmer. So yeah, sure you acknowledge a mandate.

      Commenter
      Pragmatic prince
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 6:52AM
    • He already has a mandate given to him on 7 th of September 2013

      Commenter
      No brainer
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 7:16AM
    • Don't ask for one, Phony loves to deny. Say we don't need one. The more of us who say that, the more likely he will call one.

      Commenter
      Tin
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 7:31AM
    • @Mr Ed:
      Tony has the only so-called mandate that he will ever have. He will cling to his power like a leach clings to a vein. The next two plus years will be painful as he continues to try to enforce element of his bodgie budget. The comedy from the senate will however keep us all amused as he thrashes about trying to govern his way as he prepares to face the highway to nowhere.

      Commenter
      JohnC
      Location
      Gosfordl NSW
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 7:33AM
    • Mid 2016 DD is the way to go, with the electoral reforms put through just before.

      By then the economy will improve through the needed economic strategy currently being implemented, boats will have stopped and the Goverments polling will definitely improve.

      It will be a great victory for the LNP.

      Commenter
      Steady Eddy
      Date and time
      July 15, 2014, 8:00AM

More comments

Make a comment

You are logged in as [Logout]

All information entered below may be published.

Error: Please enter your screen name.

Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

Error: Please enter your comment.

Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

Post to

You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

Thank you

Your comment has been submitted for approval.

Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

Featured advertisers